Google Launches Initiative to Hire More Autistic People

man walks in front of Google logo

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Key Takeaways

  • Google launched a new initiative to hire more autistic people, reworking interview options in an attempt to accommodate more neurodivergent employees.
  • In order to truly affirm autistic people, Google and other employers should make changes that actually benefit all candidates—such as accommodating the specific needs of each applicant and addressing systemic or cultural issues in the workplace.

Google has announced an initiative that will prioritize hiring more autistic people by adjusting the way the company approaches the interview process to accommodate neurodivergent applicants. The company aims to train up to 500 hiring managers and others involved in the hiring process to be more effective and empathetic when interacting with autistic candidates.

Google is partnering with the Stanford Neurodiversity Project whose goals include establishing a culture that values neurodivergence and empowering “talented” neurodivergent people through training and work opportunities. Google hopes to combat the high unemployment rate of autistic people by confronting biases that create barriers to equitable job access.

Addressing Interview Challenges

The Stanford Neurodiversity Project promotes specialized employment support programs for adults with autism. Their work at Google will shift the company's hiring process. Rob Enslin, President of Global Customer Operations for Google Cloud, wrote that unconscious biases impacting candidates in the interview process will be addressed. He highlights the need to be more understanding when candidates do not make eye contact or ask for additional time to complete a task and wants to offer some flexibility in interview structures.

Lyric Holmans, an autistic Neurodiversity Consultant, notes that many neurodivergent people struggle to meet neurotypical standards for friendliness, might not know how to talk up their skills, and experience anxiety that neurotypical interviewers unfairly view as red flags.

Some might also struggle to engage with obscure questions (like “How would you make a PB & J sandwich?” or “How would you fit an elephant in a refrigerator?”) which might lead their brains in a direction not intended by the interviewer because the intention of the question isn’t obvious. This less direct approach to interview questioning is often perceived as random and might confuse neurodivergent people because it seems so irrelevant to the job.

Holmans underlines that some people might fare better if they’re able to showcase their concrete skills with a portfolio, presentation on their expertise, or simulation. Enslin’s plans aren’t necessarily that flexible, although he said that Google will offer some “reasonable accommodations” including extended interview time, advance access to questions, and options to respond in written form. Stanford will also coach applicants who apply to Google through their program.

Sarah Selvaggi-Hernandez, MOT, OTR/L, an autistic occupational therapist, adds that neurodivergent people might struggle with arrival times and vague timelines for next steps and follow-ups, benefiting from clear guidelines and more flexibility. She adds that companies should use fewer automated systems throughout the process. These adjustments might benefit other applicants as well.

Selvaggi-Hernandez has partnered with HR departments in their efforts to hire autistic people. Although Google’s proposed changes will help some applicants, she says that to truly affirm neurodiversity, companies should take additional steps to become attuned to each individual applicant’s needs. This promotes a healthier experience for all candidates—not just those who are autistic.

Creating an Affirming Workplace Environment

Holmans says they used to encourage everyone to openly share about their neurodivergence in the workplace because disclosing can break down stigma and promote acceptance—but they recognize that being so open comes with risks. They admit that in some hostile workplaces, openly autistic people might be treated differently. Others might minimize their needs, take them less seriously, or pass them over for promotions.

Instead of asking those with autism to self-disclose, Holmans recommends always offering support—creating a more accommodating culture that exists in both interviews and the workplace. Leaders should consistently ask how to best support candidates and coworkers, offering options so they know and follow-up to make changes as necessary.

Lyric Holmans, Neurodiversity Consultant

We need to allow people to be vulnerable and more human in the workplace. Often corporate culture asks people to hide parts of themselves, often their weaknesses, behind a false wall of strength

— Lyric Holmans, Neurodiversity Consultant

Holmans highlights that when workplaces treat weaknesses as shameful, people can’t easily ask for help when they need it and discussions about disabilities, support systems, and accommodations become taboo. They explain that in a healthy environment, others will fully support and accept all of someone’s strengths and weaknesses no matter their diagnoses.

Holmans adds that neurodivergent people often have diagnosable difficulties processing change. Stanford plans to provide ongoing support for new hires at Google—although it’s not immediately obvious what that means tangibly. Stanford will also support the neurotypical teammates of autistic people to ensure that onboarding and other aspects of work are more accessible.

Communication is sometimes vague or filtered through workplace politics, which Selvaggi-Hernandez says can be confusing for autistic people and even contribute a hostile environment. To be truly affirming, she says employers should make proactive plans to address autistic burnout—the intense exhaustion (and often loss of skills) that results from the cumulative effect of navigating a world built for neurotypical people.

Sarah Selvaggi-Hernandez, MOT, OTR/L

By the time we are advocating for our rights, we are often already greatly struggling. If you notice neurodivergent people leaving your organization, there's something wrong.

— Sarah Selvaggi-Hernandez, MOT, OTR/L

“Sensory dysregulation is a nightmare and not only impairs executive functioning skills needed to work, but sustained over time can cause considerable damage to the mind, body, and spirit of a person,” she explains. Neurodivergent culture often emphasizes autonomy and flexibility for self-regulation.

She says that people need to move around, sit comfortably, take breaks, regulate their temperature, and eat or drink as needed. When any employee has the autonomy to meet their own basic needs, anyone who needs to can reset. Flexible options for lighting, airflow, and noise is also helpful. Managers should consider processing disorders, including auditory and visual differences. Executive functioning support and various options for processing and engagement should be a primary goal.

Selvaggi-Hernandez explains that managers should learn how individuals work best then collaborate with them to find their natural rhythm for engaging with tasks and culture, adding that workplace allies need to pay closer attention to both the individual’s needs and systemic problems.

She notes that during the pandemic, some companies implemented systems that disability advocates have been pursuing for decades, and underlines that employers must protect and integrate accessibility as a cultural value moving forward.

Google’s new initiative is a step in the right direction. Adding these accommodations, establishing support systems that combat and address burnout, and listening more closely to the needs of all employees will promote wellness.

What This Means For You

Whether you are autistic or not, initiatives like this might help you land a job with a company that is understanding and supportive of diverse needs and experiences and should make it easier to advocate for any of your individual needs in the workplace. Consider how you can better advocate for those who need accommodations by addressing problematic workplace attitudes or patterns and asking more specifically what the all applicants and coworkers need to thrive.

By Lauren Rowello
Lauren Rowello is a writer focusing on mental health, parenting, and identity. Their work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and more.