Tech Industry’s Push to Hire Autistic Workers Could Lead to Hyper-Exploitation

For autistic people, employment prospects are grim. Using data collected in 2014 and 2015, a Drexel University study found that only 14 percent of autistic adults in the United States hold paying jobs. In 2016, the university reported that while 60 percent of autistic adults who complete vocational training secure jobs, the majority earn poverty-level wages. The issue isn’t limited to the United States: Gainful employment rates for autistic people remain comparatively low in a number of other nations, including the United Kingdom and Australia.

In recent years, major corporations — particularly those in tech — have purported to offer an antidote. Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Yahoo and German software company SAP, among others, have demonstrated a mounting interest in hiring autistic candidates, introducing programs ostensibly designed to recruit them. The logic: At once, these companies address an employment crisis and avail themselves of what Microsoft calls an “untapped” pool of talent.

Efforts to engage people on the autism spectrum interested in pursuing tech careers are, in theory, laudable, especially in light of the current labor landscape. What the work-in-tech narrative elides, however, is these initiatives’ exploitative, paternalistic treatment of the people they claim to exalt.

Conceived as a vehicle of self-actualization in the 1990s, the neurodiversity movement contends that neurological differences such as dyslexia and autism aren’t “disorders,” as much scientific literature classifies them, but natural human variations. More recently, some media outlets have appropriated neurodiversity as a corporate boon. Last year, the Harvard Business Review deemed workers on the autism spectrum a “competitive advantage” for companies, touting such reductive qualities as “loyalty” and “appreciativeness of having been given a chance,” while citing productivity growth and public relations boosts. In 2016,…

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