Well, okay, it's good that these companies have hired autistic workers who had been denied jobs elsewhere. But should it be seen as a fabulous, wow-inducing event when an employer simply obeys the law by giving fair consideration to, and then hiring, a qualified applicant with a disability? The focus of this conversation, as I see it, is grossly misplaced. Rather than being all about the nice guys at Specialisterne who hire autistics, it should be on the prejudiced employers who don't, and on what can be done to meaningfully enforce the equal employment opportunity laws and drag every one of those bigots kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.
Also, to the extent that companies specifically seeking to employ autistics have been described as engaging in affirmative action, that's not what the concept is supposed to be about. Affirmative action was never meant to result in segregated workplaces where increased efforts were made to hire minorities to work in separate locations. It's about changing attitudes in mainstream workplaces to make them more welcoming places for minority employees. Separate but equal just doesn't cut it.
I'm reminded of an incident that occurred in the mid-1980s, when racial integration in American society was nowhere near what it is today. At a predominantly white university, an African-American student was graduating with a degree in engineering after years of having had bricks thrown at his head from dorm windows, occasionally being flunked by bigoted professors when he had done as much work as his white classmates, and so forth.
A recruiter for a major technology company interviewed him on campus and expressed great interest in having him visit the company for a second interview. He was at first quite excited at the prospect of what looked like an excellent job opportunity. As it turned out, however, the location that he was invited to visit was not the company's main building, but was instead a segregated facility for minority engineers. In its promotional materials, the company tried to dress it up in nice pretty flowery terms as a place where tomorrow's leaders could gain experience, et cetera. That didn't do much to hide what was really going on there.
The young engineer ended up taking a job with a smaller company instead, where although the starting pay was less than he would have gotten at the larger company, he was treated the same as all the other employees. Within a few years, his skills and diligence had impressed management enough so that he was promoted to a position of greater responsibility and much better pay.
Moral of the story: Don't settle for a segregated workplace. Those who praise such facilities for autistic workers often cite statistics purporting to show that very few autistics could find jobs otherwise. I've been arguing for years that such statistics are grossly inaccurate because they do not take into account the large number of employed autistic adults who never got a diagnosis, which often happens because a worker does not know that he or she is autistic, or perhaps because the worker is afraid of discrimination and has decided to stay "in the closet."
A recent British study, discussed in detail by Joseph at the Natural Variation blog, shows that despite rampant stereotypes to the contrary, most autistic adults are in fact employed. Rather than simply interviewing people who already had an autism spectrum diagnosis, the authors of the study took their research subjects from the general population and then evaluated all of the study participants to determine how many of them met the criteria for a diagnosis. This approach resulted in much more accurate figures than previous studies because it removed all of the confounding factors having to do with how and why a diagnosis might have been made.
Although the autistic participants in the study had a lower rate of employment than their non-autistic counterparts, the disparity was nowhere near as large as the previous studies had indicated. What this means to me is that, yes, we need to do more to ensure that every autistic job-seeker has a fair opportunity to find work; but we don't need to go about it by setting up segregated workplaces that reinforce stereotypes, while letting prejudiced mainstream employers go merrily on their bigoted way.