An article in the May issue of the online business magazine Business Insider bluntly stated, “If You Care about Innovation, Hire People Who Think Differently.”

The article heralded the value of hiring employees who are on the autism spectrum. Tara Roehl, a speech pathologist specializing in autism, succinctly nailed the reason. “They can see your product or software differently. They can figure out how something works, break down the product, find the problems and rebuild it—and they can do all that in their heads.”

I wondered how many companies were following that advice, so, I Googled companies that hire employees with autism. I found several that offer menial jobs—Walgreens, Home Depot and others. I also found companies that hire strictly employees with autism, the Danish Specialisterne and Illinois Aspiritech software companies, stood out. There’s even an agency that helps individuals with Asperger’s find jobs. All of this energy directed toward helping this population find jobs is great. But, it’s only a start.

As Patricia Wright, Ph.D., national director of autism services for Easter Seals says, “There are many adults [with autism] out there looking for and trying to secure employment, but despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re not quite there yet in terms of hiring.” Not all adults with autism have skills in IT or technology. Many are musicians, artists, historians and specialists in various fields.

With current autism diagnosis estimates of one in 88 births, adults with autism will comprise a huge part of the workforce fairly soon. It’s urgent that businesses start to rethink their hiring procedures and job descriptions. Some of the more progressive companies have already learned that the abilities and knowledge of these individuals have not only given them competent and effective employees, it has improved their bottom line. But too few companies are preparing for the onslaught of workers with different abilities, preferring to retain more restrictive hiring models.

A more proactive approach could be to take a good, hard look at the skills of adults with autism and then find a place to use their abilities most effectively. Erik’s Minnesota Adventures is our example. I can think of other possibilities that don’t involve technology.

For instance:

  • Think Tanks A large percentage of independent, high-functioning adults have brilliant mental capabilities. Think tanks could use these abilities to address new product development and naming, advertising strategies, creative solutions, uses for new technology, environmental problem solving, etc.
  • Tutors With support and structure, some of these individuals could be fantastic tutors. (Remember the movie, “A Beautiful Mind?” John Nash, the protagonist, met a group of brilliant students who understood the value of his knowledge.)
  • Research experts/knowledge gurus I worked with an extremely intelligent man who was a product manager for a high-tech company. He was fired because he couldn’t handle the organizational/social requirements of that complex job. However, if management had narrowed the job’s scope and made him market knowledge guru, he would have been an excellent and enormous benefit to the company. Corporations, unfortunately, have standard job categories and an entire skilled group is left out in the cold.

My concluding thought is this. Focus on starting cottage industries businesses as quickly as possible to offer meaningful work to adults with autism in the short term. Simultaneously, we need to develop templates to help corporations begin to think/act differently from the status quo. If businesses receive a realistic path to help hire and train adults with autism and teach existing workers to accommodate their differences, the paradigm can shift. As a result, companies that care about innovation will already have in place differently thinking individuals who can take companies to the next level.