Getting a good job is hard, even if you have strong social skills like being able to network and make small talk with potential employers during interviews. But for individuals with autism who often have trouble with basic interactions, getting a foot in the door professionally can be even more daunting.
That was the case for Janis Oberman, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as an adult. She passed in and out of temporary positions for over a decade before landing a full-time job at the German software company SAP.
SAP hired Oberman as a software specialist at the firm’s Palo Alto, California, office two years ago as part of the company's global initiative to recruit candidates with autism and Asperger’s.
“It was a big deal to get the job,” said Oberman, who grew up in California's San Fernando Valley and has a master’s in multimedia from California State University, East Bay. “I’m not very good at things like networking. I’m all right at interviewing, but not great at high-pressure interviews that are going on a lot in tech.”
As companies try to diversify and heed calls to be more inclusive, a growing number of them are now identifying positions that people on the spectrum will excel at, interviewing them and hiring them for full-time or temporary positions.
SAP, the information technology services company CAI, the consulting firm Oliver Wyman and the risk management and human resources firm Willis Towers Watson are some of the companies that have recently partnered with Specialisterne, a Danish company that prepares people with autism for the workforce. Microsoft, also working with Specialisterne, announced a pilot program last spring and has since hired 11 individuals full-time in software and data roles.
“The reality is that for us to be successful, it requires us to identify a business need. The social benefit is secondary,” said Mark Grein, executive director of Specialisterne’s U.S. division.
But the catalyst for companies to introduce these programs is often personal. “To change the corporate culture, to look differently at the labor market, it’s useful to have an influential person on the inside,” added Grein, who has a child with autism.
“Having a diverse group of workers and not being scared or put off by someone who has a diagnosis is the best way we learn about difference.”
Part of the allure of such programs, employers say, is the way they tap into a business solution. Autistic individuals’ strengths include the ability to find patterns and anomalies in data and to focus and perform high-quality repetitive work. Those attributes are valuable in roles in data analysis, IT, software design and multimedia.
The first wave of temporary employees that Willis Towers Watson hired through its autism initiative arrived at the company's White Plains, New York, offices in spring 2014, when the need for analysts surged. Their work included reviewing compensation survey submissions from Fortune 500 companies.
“They performed really well, and they opened our eyes that we should consider them for jobs in HR, technology and benefits administration,” said Tim Weiler, a Willis Towers Watson consultant who was instrumental in bringing the program to the company. “They’re diligent and capable of a period of prolonged focus. If you can alter your sourcing strategy by not unconsciously screening them out when you interview them, you can solve management issues.”
A second pilot program has begun at Willis Towers Watson offices in Philadelphia and Mount Laurel, New Jersey, where the company expects to hire five individuals full-time in the actuarial and benefits administration departments. The company will also launch a pilot in the United Kingdom this year.
CAI has hired over 50 people with autism and aims to hire 120, or around 3 percent of its workforce, by the end of the year. The majority are based in the company’s Delaware office.
“There’s an opportunity to help an underserved labor market that can really do productive work and that has, for years, struggled to find meaningful employment,” said Ernie Dianastasis, a managing director at the firm.
At Microsoft, the pilot program was prompted by some soul-searching about how the company was driving top talent to its workforce. After announcing the initiative at the United Nations headquarters last April, the company says it received 700 resumes for the initial 10 positions. The program is now expanding further in the U.S. and to the U.K.
"We were trying to be very self-reflective about where we're at as a company," said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft's chief accessibility officer. "Is our door truly open to every part of disability?"
Advocates say placing individuals with autism alongside other team members helps to foster creativity and project innovation. And it does much to stretch an organization to embrace people who might think and behave differently from the typical employee.
“We can be very stigmatizing about differences in people,” said Connie Kasari, a psychology professor at UCLA and a founder of the university’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment. “Having a diverse group of workers and not being scared or put off by someone who has a diagnosis is the best way we learn about difference.”
A frequent concern for those in the autism community is that, despite the good intentions, the desire to get people on the spectrum a job -- any job -- can disregard their particular skills or interests. Many of those involved in the hiring initiatives stress the importance of avoiding a blanket approach, and instead working to ensure that candidates are matched with work that is fulfilling.
“People with autism are not all the same,” said Elijah Martinez, a product manager hired through SAP’s Autism at Work program in Palo Alto. “It takes a little time to look at an individual and see what they have to offer and perhaps what their special needs are, but they become beneficial once they’re slotted into a specific role that works for them.”
Fortunately, the breadth of positions open to autistic candidates is increasing. SAP’s program, which started primarily with jobs in software and IT, has since expanded to include graphic design, finance administration and marketing roles. The initiative has spread to offices in Europe, Asia and South America, and the company has hired around 100 employees, 65 of them full-time.
Martinez, who was recently promoted from his role as a software integration specialist, conducts software quality tests and meets with clients on-site to give demos.
“Seeing people, even in retail, using these technologies and using your product is quite an interesting experience,” he said. “I’ve never really done that type of thing before.”
“There’s an opportunity to help an underserved labor market that can really do productive work and that has, for years, struggled to find meaningful employment.”
Employers work with Specialisterne to develop training and support programs for their interview candidates and new hires, in the hopes that these processes will eventually become organic.
“Individuals can miss social cues, and sometimes the social culture of an organization may have difficulty in figuring out how to engage them,” said Grein. “We encourage management and the workplace to be more inclusive.”
After receiving feedback from employees, SAP’s training period for autistic candidates has evolved. Jose Velasco, who leads the company's autism initiative, extended training from four to five weeks and encouraged managers to get to know the candidates better by getting coffee together and giving small assignments. He also implemented a week of "soft skills" training, which helps the candidates learn how to manage their stress, work with colleagues and disclose to others that they are autistic.
Employees outside the program, too, have learned to be more direct and precise when interacting with their colleagues. Because many autistic individuals do not easily grasp ambiguities in speech, team members and managers know to clearly define project goals and directions.
SAP's five-week interview and training period is just one example of how employers are opting for a nontraditional interview process to better accommodate autistic candidates in team-building exercises and small projects. The typical whiteboard interview in tech, for example, where programmers are asked to solve a problem on a board in front of hiring managers, has been scrapped at Microsoft.
At one point during her interview at SAP, Oberman found herself building a Lego Mindstorms robot using the kit’s directions along with other interviewees. It’s a task developed by Specialisterne that allows employers to evaluate candidates’ job skills, including teamwork.
Oberman says she’s relished the opportunities to work with colleagues across the company and participate in activities outside of her role. At a hack-athon in 2014, she came up with an idea to remotely control lights on a table and helped her team win the competition.
Companies' commitment to hiring for full-time work, rather than for a contract or internship, has been an enormous boost for many in the autism community. “Really, the biggest problem is getting a job for us,” Oberman said. “And if you have to do this over and over again, you end up out of work before the opportunity comes again.”