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Working With Autism

02 Apr 2019

Derek Smyth

Derek Smyth, Manager of Brightwater’s IT division discusses how a number of big names are now working on viable programmes to help transition autistic talent into their technology workforce.

As we celebrate World Autism Day today, I was reminded of an article I had read about an IT consultancy in the UK called Auticon.

Auticon was originally founded in Germany in 2011 by Dirk Müller-Remus, but now employs over 200 staff across the UK, USA, Germany, France and Switzerland. What makes them unique, is that they were the first enterprise that exclusively employ adults on the autism spectrum as IT consultants.

Dirk, who was a former software developer himself, had a son who was diagnosed with Asberger Syndrome which is on the Autistic Disorder Spectrum (ASD). He noticed that there were very few opportunities available for people with autism, and yet he was fully aware that people with autism had a number of distinct traits; a high level of concentration (sometimes termed as hyperfocusity), attention to detail, exceptional skills in pattern recognition and a strong appreciation of systems and patterns. In addition, they can exhibit high intelligence, intense commitment to high quality work and out of the box thinking. These characteristics are all prized in the technology industry in areas such as software testing and data conversion/analytics.

Some of the world’s most well-known tech leaders such has Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have long been speculated as to being on the ASD spectrum. However, even though autistic adults may have extraordinary technical or cognitive abilities, many find it difficult to secure or maintain mainstream employment.  An estimated 1% of the world’s population has an autism spectrum disorder, but approximately 80% of people in this group are unemployed. Others are doing menial jobs far below their skill level.

Where they often stumble is obtaining a job in the first place, since they can struggle with the strong verbal and nonverbal communication skills that are needed in a traditional job interview situation.

Auticon recognised the potential and decided to exclusively recruit IT consultants who were autistic.  By creating autism-positive work environments and offering highly individualised, sustained support mechanisms to autistic employees, they could provide their corporate clients with the means to tap into the talents of autistic people. This approach has proved extremely successful and they have consistently grown their business and expanded into new territories.

In 2015, on World Autism Awareness Day, Microsoft announced their own Autism Hiring Program. They had recognised that there were very talented people with autism who could thrive at Microsoft, but they also recognised that their traditional hiring process could pose a major barrier of entry for many candidates.  They began to think about how they could attract the talent available while adjusting their recruitment and on-boarding processes in order to allow candidates to be able to best showcase their skills and abilities.

Microsoft achieved great success and managed to recruit and on-board skilled candidates across the business including software development and data science.

Since then a number of other companies have become involved including SAP, JP Morgan Chase, EY and Ford and all are now working on viable programmes that are helping transition autistic talent onto their technology workforce.

CoderDojo, clubs set up specifically for developing computer skills amongst children, are also proving beneficial to children with ASD. PyCon Ireland last year also featured an interesting talk on “Autism in the Developer Workplace” which highlighted the fact that as diagnoses of autism are increasing, so too is the understanding that the workplace, particularly in STEM, can benefit from their gifts.

As companies in Ireland compete and struggle to secure IT talent, it is worth pointing out that they need to recognise that there are very talented people who may struggle to gain successful employment through traditional recruitment processes. If companies can tailor their approach, this may allow a more diverse candidate pool including those on the spectrum, to come through and add new skills and experience to the organisation. Today on World Autism Day, we encourage organisations to join the approach of the companies mentioned above and use the considerable talents of a very under-utilised resource.

Derek Smyth is Manager of Brightwater’s IT division, personally specialising in temporary & contract placement of IT professionals. He can be contacted on (01) 6621000 or by email on [email protected]