Each weekday, 24-year-old Bertram Nicholls leaves the three-story home he shares with his mother in Washington, D.C., and takes public transportation to his job in northern Virginia. He works for Freddie Mac, the federal home loan mortgage corporation. For the past year, the Marymount University graduate, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies, has been working in software testing and data entry as an intern in support of the company’s business and technology projects.
Nicholls is not that different from most other working people—except that he has autism.
Companies around the world—particularly tech companies—have discovered that Nicholls and other job candidates with autism may be uniquely qualified to help them fill their talent pipelines. Recruiters say that such individuals tend to be meticulous, can focus for long periods and are comfortable with repetitive work. Those abilities can make them well-suited for a range of technical jobs, and those positions often pay very well.
Yet, for now, Nicholls is more the exception than the rule. For the more than 3.5 million Americans who have autism spectrum disorder, or ASD—a group of disorders that make it difficult for people to interact socially and communicate—good jobs are hard to find. Between 80 percent to 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, advocacy organizations estimate. Most work part time in low-paying jobs, earning about $8 hourly.
“For the most part, [the low employment rate] is not because of the lack of ability among adults with autism to perform jobs—it’s mostly due to their challenges with social interaction and communication,” says David Kearon, director of adult services at Bethesda, Md.-based Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization.
And, as some of the world’s best-known IT companies have begun hiring these individuals, the employers have actually seen a positive impact on retention, morale and their corporate culture as a result.
For most organizations, bringing people with autism into the workplace is about more than diversity. It’s about business results.
“All the research shows that you will have a more sustainable business case and you perform better” if your company is diverse, says Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity and inclusion officer with software company SAP, based in Walldorf, Germany. “There’s always a very clear correlation between diversity and inclusion and employee engagement, customer orientation and innovation.”
That’s why in 2013 the organization, with nearly 80,000 workers worldwide, began its Autism at Work program. Its goal by 2020 is for 1 percent of its workforce to be made up of employees who have been diagnosed with autism. That reflects the percentage of the population with autism in Europe, Wittenberg says. Program participants complete a 30-day screening and interview process in which their skills are assessed.
Audio Interview: Aliah Wright
Listen to Aliah Wright talk more about companies that are pioneering efforts to hire people with autism.
“We started that program three years ago,” she notes. “Now, we have rolled out the program in nine locations in five countries and we have onboarded over 100 people with autism.”
Both SAP and Freddie Mac assign employees who don’t have ASD to help workers with autism in their new roles. At Freddie Mac in McLean, Va., these mentors typically are parents of children who are on the spectrum.
Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE), which employs more than 10,000 people, also uses autism consultants—“team leaders” who have completed autism awareness and management training. They “help with onboarding and work with the individuals on their development plans,” says Michael Fieldhouse, director of emerging businesses and federal government at the Palo Alto, Calif.-based technology company.
HPE spent a year developing its now 3-year-old Dandelion Program, which was established to provide job opportunities to people with autism. The company currently employs 45 such workers as analysts and software testers in IT operations and cybersecurity.
To smooth the way, HPE has a buddy program to acclimate the employees to their roles at the company. It holds autism awareness sessions for managers and team members, and it strives to promote job and career movement, says Fieldhouse, who is based in Australia. Individual development plans are focused on life and executive-function skills. “This helps build resilience and retention,” he says.
Freddie Mac and other organizations that hire people on the autism spectrum also train interviewers and hiring managers on how to interact with candidates. “The limp handshake, the lack of eye contact, the soft-spoken voice—those aren’t things that determine your ability to do the job or not. They shouldn’t be taken into consideration or used as early red flags,” says Freddie Mac’s diversity and inclusion director, Stephanie Roemer. “We’re coaching all of our managers to suspend judgment for as long as possible in assessing for the skills that the individual has.”
That has been one of the biggest benefits for the corporation: an increased awareness about the value of those who are different. Others at the organization are “not judging [workers with autism] on that difference but assessing them on the ability to do the job,” Roemer says.
And the initiative is growing. Four years ago, working with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a Washington-D.C.-based disability rights group focusing on autism, Freddie Mac introduced an internship program that identifies candidates with autism and trains hiring managers and co-workers to support their success. The effort has become so successful, Roemer says, that the corporation has turned to other organizations such as Computer Aid Inc., the George Washington University Disabilities Program and Autism Speaks to find additional talent.
“We have some targeted job descriptions, and we need to expand our reach of places where we can locate candidates from,” Roemer said. “So the network is growing.”
One Man’s Quest
Many organizations are rapidly beginning to see individuals with autism in a new light, thanks in large part to the efforts of people such as Thorkill Sonne.
“My youngest son was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, and we didn’t have a clue that we had a disabled son,” says Sonne, a former director for a Danish telecommunications company and founder of the Danish nonprofit Specialisterne (Specialists). Lars, now 19, is a college student. The initial assessment really surprised the family. “When the psychiatrist explained autism and the autistic traits, we could relate these to our son. We never thought of him as a disabled child. I knew nothing about autism beyond seeing the movie ‘Rain Man,’ ” he says of the 1988 Oscar-winning film starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
Located in Wilmington, Del., Specialisterne USA is a 12-year-old organization that assesses, trains and employs people with autism and has helped place them as consultants and employees at nearly 100 companies worldwide. They include Capital One, Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM, J.P. Morgan Chase, Microsoft, Oliver Wyman, SAP and Willis Towers Watson, as well as companies throughout Europe, says Sonne, Specialisterne’s CEO.
Sonne’s group has established branches, licensed its model or partnered with other organizations, including HPE, to encourage the hiring of people with autism in about 15 countries.
“I was a technical director in an IT firm and knew how hard it was to find people with good IT skills,” he says of the time when he decided to launch Specialisterne. Sonne says many people who are on the autism spectrum make ideal IT candidates because of the associated traits.
“They will get competitive jobs. They’ll go from unemployment to earning six figures,” he says. “One of the calls we got was from a mother who said, ‘I’m really glad you got my son a job, but how do I tell my husband our disabled son now earns more than he does?’ ”
At SAP, workers with autism have been placed in at least 18 distinct jobs—“from project management and customer support to developing Web applications and performing data analysis,” Sonne says. Some are even working in human resources.
“In Australia, we were working with HP and the Australian Department of Defense,” Sonne says. “There are a lot of potential jobs in cybersecurity.” In any business area, especially IT, he says, there’s a strong need for people with skills associated with autism: a good memory, the ability to see patterns and deviations, great attention to detail, high accuracy in repetitive tasks, and the ability to think differently. Those are the unique abilities he observed in his own son.
They are also the skills SAP often refers to as being drivers of innovation, according to Sonne. “Innovation comes from the sidelines, not the mainstream,” he says.
“Autism should not get in the way for autistic people to realize their potential,” he maintains.
The Autism Advantage
As for Nicholls at Freddie Mac, he finds joy in what he does.
“I’ve definitely come to enjoy being at the computer and doing the various types of work,” Nicholls says. “Doing something repetitively has always been kind of rhythmic to me. A lot of the things I do … require you to pay very close attention to what you’re going through. You have to make sure you’re catching every detail. Because of my autism, I kind of have an advantage in that.”
Executives at business management consultancy Oliver Wyman have discovered something similar. In 2014, the company, which employs 3,600 workers in 26 countries, partnered with Specialisterne to recruit data management specialists and proofreaders with autism. The result? The employees entered more than 10,000 records in two months, completing a task that had previously taken more than a year, according to the company’s chief operating officer, Jeremy Badman.
The program is “no longer a pilot. It’s a core part of the way we deliver some of those services,” Badman says. With 10 individuals with autism working in its New York City headquarters, the program is “definitely a success,” he says. “So far, we’ve only hired people in New York, but we are actively looking to expand it in London, Mexico and Warsaw, Poland. The challenge we’ve been facing around expanding it is finding a partner to work with” to help locate, train and hire the employees.
At Oliver Wyman, workers with autism are held to the same standards as other employees, says Badman, who adds that they are enthusiastic and engaged. “We’re not hiring people on the spectrum of autism out of charity or altruism,” he says. “We see them as a highly valuable, underleveraged talent pool predisposed to take on certain tasks.
Increasingly, HR is seeing them in the same light.
Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager at SHRM.
Photograph by John R. Anderson Jr. for HR Magazine.