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05.11.15 9:15 AM ET

Employers Are Seeking Out Autistic Workers

An increasing number of companies are launching initiatives to find job candidates with autism. How a cluster of society struggling to find jobs became the tech world’s most wanted.

While the nation has finally stumbled its way back to the lowest level of unemployment since May 2008, one group remains on the sidelines of this promotion of the general welfare. People with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as people without disabilities. In the case of neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as autism, the number may be far higher.

There is reason, however, for cautious optimism that some of those numbers may soon change for the better, perhaps especially in the case of autism. In just the past couple of years, several major companies—especially tech companies—have started hiring initiatives that particularly search for job candidates with autism. They are taking a second look at people with autism and seeing not deficits, but a pool of dormant talent.

Microsoft, Vodafone, and SAP are among the companies that have launched programs intended to integrate people with autism into their workforces. “We actually see this as part of a larger, slowly emerging, and hugely beneficial trend: an increased interest in and willingness to hire people with disabilities in competitive positions,” said Julia Bascom, director of programs at the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, a disability-rights organization run for and by autistic people.

“We see these hiring initiatives happening in the same timespan as federal hiring efforts, Employment First policies at the state level, and growing public dissatisfaction with subminimum wages for people with disabilities. We think that’s very encouraging.”

Microsoft has partnered with Specialisterne—a Danish staffing company that specializes in placing people with autism in careers in which autism can be an advantage—to hire full-time employees with autism. Mary Ellen Smith, a corporate vice president, stated in a recent blog post, “It’s simple, Microsoft is stronger when we expand opportunity and we have a diverse workforce that represents our customers. People with autism bring strengths that we need at Microsoft, each individual is different, some have amazing ability to retain information, think at a level of detail and depth or excel in math or code.”

Adam Liversage, a spokesperson for Vodafone, spoke to The Daily Beast of the business benefits of hiring people with autism. “Through a programme called Auticon, Vodafone Germany has reaped the benefits of employing people on the [autism] spectrum, where their high logical and analytical skills are valued in fields such as software testing."

Among the most developed and ambitious autism hiring initiatives is being carried about by SAP, the global software corporation. SAP’s goal is that by somewhere around 2020, 1 percent of its global workforce—650 people—will be people with autism. They have so far hired 40 workers with autism.   

Jose Velasco is in charge of SAP’s “Autism at Work” program and was an animated advocate for the program in an interview with The Daily Beast. Not only has it expanded SAP’s talent pool, but, he argues, it has created more innovation, team cohesion, greater productivity, and better customer relations. “It’s win-win-win-win. I could say ‘win’ four times,” he said.

Velasco described one worker who had been unemployed for 13 years before her hiring by SAP. A year ago, she proposed an idea that helped her three-person team win a hackathon competition over 19 other teams. Her talents are finally being employed. Other workers with autism are thriving there as well. Some of the software testers are ranked in the top 3 to 5 percent for job performance.

People with autism face a particular challenge getting hired because of the traditional interview process, which tends to reward candidates with smooth social skills. “A job interview is often the worst way to determine if an autistic applicant is qualified for a given position. The interview is all about social communication: how good is your eye contact, how reassuring is your tone of voice, how fluent is your speech,” said Bascom. “We recommend that, rather than a traditional job interview, the company provide a more practical way of assessing a prospective employee’s skills.”

Aware of these concerns for hiring, SAP partners with Specialisterne internationally, and with Expandability and The Arc of Pennsylvania in the U.S. The process lasts six weeks. It begins with a team-building exercise in which prospective employees program a Lego Mindstorm robot while their performance can be evaluated. After candidates are selected, they have a three-week intensive training and orientation to help them navigate the workplace as well as some of the specifics of their jobs. For the last two weeks, project managers are incorporated into the process. “This allows us to have a two-week interview,” Velasco noted.

Once hired, the workers with autism are supported by a job coach from Expanadability or The Arc and assigned a peer-level “buddy” as well as a mentor—another worker who has volunteered to help out with the program and be a social support for the new hire. “We look for the technical skills. Not everyone, but a lot of people on the spectrum have a keen eye for deviations and focused attention. These are directly applicable for software testing,” said Velasco.

Steven Soroka is the president and CEO of SourceAmerica, an organization that trains and places people with disabilities in careers. Soroka had no particular affiliation with the disability community in his prior role as a group vice president in charge of Homeland Security at Unisys. Since coming to SourceAmerica, however, he has found people with disabilities to be “some of the most dedicated, productive people I’ve seen.”

He points out that for every government dollar spent on employment programs, 7 cents is saved when the worker moves from disability benefits programs. Investing in employment for people with disabilities not only provides dignity and independence for those who are hired, it lessens the need for a social safety net.

“We receive terrific feedback from employers, who tell us how well their people are performing. Once they get comfortable and see the productivity levels, there’s not uptick in numbers of people hired, but kinds of work they ask us to fill,” said Soroka.

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Perhaps contrary to a popular image, not everyone with autism is suited for a highly technical role. “Many people believe that autistic workers inherently have particular cognitive strengths in STEM. However, autistic employees have much to offer every industry, and not all of us are gifted at—or interested in STEM—some of us may even have learning disabilities which make STEM fields a challenge,” Bascom pointed out. “We need to ensure that we see similar recruitment and talent acquisition efforts in non-STEM fields too.”

The Autism at Work program at SAP includes as one of its guiding principles that people with autism are not only considered for one kind of job. Other jobs that are filled by people with autism at the company include graphic designers and IT project management.

“They have never had an opportunity, but they deserve an opportunity. The key is to provide them the right platform to shine,” said Velasco. “We support neurodiversity, the differences that people with autism bring to the organization. They are hired because of differences and not in spite of them. It’s very, very important. Different viewpoints will help us with different perspectives.”