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Hiring from the Autism Spectrum

By Esther Shein

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 63 No. 6, Pages 17-19
10.1145/3392509

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Years ago, Michael Field-house had a dinner party and friends attended with their young son Andrew, who is autistic, non-verbal, and low-functioning. At one point, Fieldhouse noticed Andrew, who was five- or six-years-old at the time, outside dropping pebbles into an urn in a Japanese garden.

"I was curious about that and I started timing him," recalls Fieldhouse. "I noted there were perfect intervals between every stone. He did that for at least an hour."

Fieldhouse had an epiphany that night that "changed my view on talent. We look at so many people's deficits and not their strengths; what they can't do versus what they can do."

That inspired Fieldhouse to begin conducting research around autism-at-work programs. Over the course of about a year, "I interviewed lots of people at companies that had done this, and all of their programs failed." He found three reasons for those failures, he says: not enough training for managers and coworkers; not enough effort put into changing the work culture; and a lack of focus on sustainable employment.

Those three elements became the backbone of a program Fieldhouse helped build in 2013 at Hewlett-Packard; he and the program moved in 2017 to DXC, which was the result of the spinoff of the Enterprise Service segment of what in 2015 became Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and its merger with Computer Sciences Corporation. Today, he is social impact practice leader in DXC's Dandelion Program, which has approximately 120 employees in Australia and New Zealand, and a 92% retention rate.

"I went in with a business case and [upper management] liked the idea," he recalls. "I pushed it as a talent gain and didn't sell it as a disability program or some kind of inclusion initiative, but as capability uplift." As a tech company, there were vacancies in a lot of areas, and Fieldhouse focused on areas of need where autistic workers could fill a void, such as analytics, cybersecurity, software testing, and automation work.

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Figure. Analyst Corey Weiss, who was diagnosed with autism as a young boy, working at Mindspark.

With a technology staffing shortage that shows no signs of letting up any time soon, companies like DXC are turning to an often untapped talent pool: individuals with autism, or who are on the autism spectrum.

It's a win-win for both companies and people on the autism spectrum. These individuals are good candidates for technology jobs because some have "hyper-focused attention to detail and pattern recognition," says Marcia Scheiner, founder and president of Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, whose tag line is "people with autism are hot hires for AI jobs."

When companies are looking for people who can do software testing and repetitive tasks, and find bugs and errors, Scheiner will point out that given the way the autistic brain works, they don't see similarities, "but differences jump out at them right away," she says. "So people on the autism spectrum will see errors or breaks in a pattern; that's something they're really good at."

Dave Kearon, director of adult services at Autism Speaks, an advocacy group that also helps companies start a neurodiversity program that recognizes and values neurological differences, agrees that people on the autism spectrum "are particularly well-suited to the IT industry." Many tend to pay attention to detailed requirements and precision in their work, he says, and they also have great visual acuity, and like to perform repetitive tasks.

It's hard to know how many companies have neurodiversity work programs. Kearon says Autism Speaks has placed individuals at Michael's arts and crafts stores, and Stanley Black & Decker, in retail, warehousing, stockroom, and manufacturing roles. Scheiner says Autism Employment Advisors currently are working with four or five companies, including Prudential Insurance, Barclay's, and Shopify.

Besides DXC, several other large enterprises offer neurodiversity programs. The [email protected] Employer roundtable is comprised of businesses that have been running autism-focused initiatives for at least a year. The group shares best practices in areas like training and onboarding. Participating companies include Cintas, DXC, EY, Fidelity, Ford, Freddie Mac, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Rising Tide Car Wash, SAP, Spectrum, Travelers, Ultra Testing, and Willis Towers Watson.

The need for these programs is palpable. There are between 70,000 and 110,000 people on the autism spectrum in the U.S., according to Drexel University, mostly young adults and teens who are aging out of school every year at 21, when most states cut their mandated funding.

"There's a growing number of those youths leaving school and entering the job market, and we're nowhere even close to providing job opportunities to meet that need," Kearon says. Even the "best" programs have hired about 200 individuals on the spectrum, he says, while most typically employ around 100 or less.

"We need tens of thousands of programs like that," Kearon says. Right now, companies with neurodiversity programs tend to be clustered in the tech sector and the financial services industry, he says. "We need companies in all industries to start these types of neurodiversity inclusion programs for people with autism spectrum disorder."

Many of these individuals will graduate from two- or four-year colleges, and because of their "extraordinary abilities," they won't need to go through a job placement service, he notes. Once they are employed, however, they will need certain supports and a culture that is accepting of some of their differences.

"It's more than just hiring and placing people," Kearon says. The big need here is to support people and help them develop careers over time. "It's not just the initial placement; we need to change corporate cultures and make sure they're supportive of people who think differently."

There is also a need for small companies to offer neurodiversity programs. One such company, New York City-based Daivergent, was started in December 2017 by Byran Dai, whose brother Brandon, 20, is on the spectrum. As a data scientist, Dai saw a need for workers in artificial intelligence and machine learning.


There is a "massive talent pool" of these individuals, many of whom understand patterns and have a proclivity for complex work.


Echoing Kearon, Dai says his brother will have to leave his alternative educational setting when he turns 21 and loses his funding. "There is no pipeline for someone like him in the tech and data space." More typically, people on the spectrum are underleveraged, he says, and wind up working in custodial or food services roles.

Daivergence has a software platform that seeks to become the bridge between people on the autism spectrum and companies that need to fulfill a data-related task, anything from building AI data sets to identifying talent for analytics, QA, or software testing, Dai says.

There is a "massive talent pool" of these individuals, many of whom understand patterns and have a proclivity for complex work, Dai says. Daivergence's goal is to build a recruiting pipeline to help companies fulfill their neurodiversity hiring needs, he says.

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What Employers Should Know

Scheiner, who has an autistic son, says it's important to know that people on the spectrum are a talented, skilled, and untapped resource. However, "it is incumbent upon employers to make sure if they're going to hire diverse individuals, to invest time and resources for their neurodiverse employees to be successful," she says. "This entails understanding what it means to be autistic, and training their managers to be effective communicators."

This population is well-suited for a variety of jobs, says Kearon, "so keep an open mind and a broader perspective on how someone who is neuro-diverse can fit in." As people become more familiar with the neurodiverse "movement," he says, they will learn quickly that these individuals "can fit in as your QA tester or engineer or your work within marketing or within your operations team."

Fieldhouse also emphasizes that employers should keep an open mind. "Talent can come from anywhere. We've got a person who was homeless and unemployed, and is now is one of top people working in identity fraud at DXC."

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Autism in the Workplace

In 2013, SAP became one of the first large companies to offer an Autism at Work program, with the goal of fostering a more inclusive workplace. Today the company employs over 175 employees with autism in 14 countries across a wide variety of job types, and the program has a 90% retention rate, according to SAP spokesperson Sue Sutton.

The impetus for a neurodiversity program at JPMorgan Chase came about in 2015 on the heels of a conversation between an HR person and a senior executive about the difficulty of finding IT talent, says Anthony Pacilio, vice president and global head of the company's Autism at Work program. Pacilio had seen people on the spectrum succeed in IT jobs at different companies he had worked for, so JPMorgan Chase tapped a local talent sourcing firm to find candidates and started a pilot with four individuals in QA roles, which was the immediate need at the time, Pacilio says. Today, the company's Autism at Work program has grown significantly: it employs 170 people in eight countries and over 40 different job roles.

The four people in the pilot were 48% more productive than other employees, Pacilio says. "That little piece was the springboard for the pilot to become a program. We thought, 'heck, did we just get lucky with this one job role?' So we wanted to prove out the business case and make sure the QA portion was an accurate representation of the talent we were bringing in."

From there, the program brought in individuals to do application support, and they were 90% to 140% more productive than other employees, with zero errors within first the six months, far surpassing expectations, Pacilio says.

Like the others, he says people on the autism spectrum are good candidates for tech jobs because of their focus, pattern recognition, and their "innate ability to be logical in seeing what's on the screen." Their decision-making and problem-solving skills are "second to none," he says. "It brings a whole new perspective to the workplace, and I don't think we've seen this type of work ethic in this space before."

One of the comments Pacilio hears from employees about hiring people with autism is that they never thought they would work next to someone so different from them, and that this has forced them to think differently. Other comments are that it's refreshing to get a different point of view, and that people tend to hire people just like them, he adds. "Bringing in people who see things differently and solve issues differently opens up everyone's mind."

Of course, the program has had its challenges. Initially, they had trouble finding the right managers to oversee people on the autism spectrum, and ensuring everyone engaged with the program has been trained to handle any situations that crop up.

"When things are new, people are nervous, but we've done a good job building up training and education," Pacilio says. The way to quell nervousness is to include people who are neurodiverse and their caregivers in the discussion, so "neuro-typicals" learn from them, he adds.

Jesse Collins, 29, is a software engineer at JPMorgan Chase who learned about the Autism at Work program from his wife, who also works at the company. "It struck me as really cool to be at a place where you could be authentically you and take away all the stress I have in terms of trying to fit in with neurotypicals," Collins says.

Collins' college degree is in psychology; he previously was a social worker, but said the job became difficult because when a patient would cry, he would freeze. "I couldn't work in that environment," he says. "Computers don't cry ... so working with computers makes sense to me."

His skills came in handy when Collins was brought into the company as a QA tester for eight months. "I had to teach myself how to have a conversation, and just because I wasn't interested in a topic not to transition to something else," he says.

Although he finds group settings uncomfortable, Collins says social work and psychology taught him how to socialize. "My brain is very strategic, but I need to know what's going on in a group ... so you learn how to communicate, and I'm able to memorize things very quickly."

In fact, the tech vendor JPMorgan Chase was using told Pacilio that Collins went to a bookstore to track down a book so he could learn Java the weekend before his assessment. Collins says he also "watched a lot of YouTube videos."

"He came in that Monday and knocked it out of the park," Pacilio says.

Collins says the company has a welcoming environment, and it has allowed him to "bring my own skill-sets and uniqueness and thrive and really succeed."

During that all-important weekend, Collins was mindful that while having a "hyper focus" is a benefit, "I also understand my wife may not want to go to bed hearing TED Talks and YouTube videos, so I have balance. That's part of life, too."

* Further Reading

[email protected] Roundtable http://bit.ly/39SMqaJ

DXC Dandelion Program https://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/dandelionprogram/

Oesch, T.
Autism at Work: Hiring and Training Employees on the Spectrum, August 19, 2019, Society for Human Resource Management, http://bit.ly/39VErty

Kaufman, J.
Mindset Matters: Autism, Design Thinking And Building A Pathway To Employment," April 12, 2019 Forbes, http://bit.ly/39VErty

Bruyere, S.M.
All About Skills: Tapping the Power of Neurodiversity, 2017, U.S. Department of Labor blog, http://bit.ly/2QGyYzr

Henry, Z.
Changing Employers' Perceptions, One Autistic Worker at a Time, Inc.com, http://bit.ly/2T4R7sd

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Author

Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.


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