Why more companies are seeking autistic workers

Cybersecurity and other tech jobs are hard to fill and autistic adults have high rates of unemployment. A growing number of organizations are addressing both problems at once.

Oliver Wyman had a workflow problem. Partners at the global consulting firm traveled extensively, and expense reimbursement was becoming burdensome. “Reports would take weeks to be submitted; it wasn’t motivating the team, and mistakes were being made,” says Nathalie Vanheusden, who oversees the company’s global staff of executive assistants.

But Vanheusden saw an opportunity in this nagging issue. She had done some volunteer work with organizations that helped high-functioning autistic adults adapt to the workplace. Expense reports were repetitive and tedious, but they also required a heightened aptitude for pattern recognition and attention to detail — traits commonly associated with many autistic people.

“I thought, if I could give this work to someone on the spectrum, it would free up the team,” she says. “They don’t get bored the way a neuro-typical [not on the autism spectrum] person would.”

Vanheusden started an autism hiring initiative in her department in 2015. Several companies, including Microsoft, SAP, and IBM have piloted similar programs in recent years. It’s a promising development for those on the autism spectrum, who have much higher rates of unemployment than the workforce at large and face unique challenges assimilating into the workplace.

But these efforts hold vast potential for employers, too. The pool of employees with spectrum disorders is growing: An estimated 1.5 percent of the population is diagnosed with some form of neurodiversity, including those with dyslexia, Asperger Syndrome, and autism. Fifty thousand individuals on the autism spectrum turn 18 every year. At the same time, a number of jobs and industries that could be great fits for such workers — including IT and cybersecurity — are facing talent shortages.

The program at Oliver Wyman, in a fast-paced, highly interactive consulting firm, also bucks the stereotype that autistic workers are fit only for solitary jobs in front of a computer. “This is not a charity,” says Vanheusden. “These individuals can make a huge contribution to real business problems.”

Potential in tech

To launch its program and find its first cohort of new hires, Oliver Wyman teamed up with Specialisterne, a Danish organization pioneering the push to hire autistic workers. Founded in 2004, Specialisterne started by deploying autistic workers as contractors for jobs such as software testing and quality control. Now, it also helps employers find and onboard autistic talent. Partners range from tech giants such as IBM to public offices, including the State of Delaware.

Specialisterne founder Thorkil Sonne’s work in the field started as an outgrowth of the realization that his autistic son was capable of remarkable things, including perfectly reproducing a page from a map book from memory. He says workers on the autism spectrum can be fantastic fits for tech jobs, including those in cybersecurity. “It’s hard to say, ‘This is how an autistic person is,’ but there are some characteristics” that are commonplace, he notes. “Attention to detail, good memory, many can see patterns. High tolerance for repetitive tasks. Cybersecurity needs skillsets like that.”

Already, some organizations see those skills as necessities. The Israeli army has a special intelligence unit with dozens of recruits on the autism spectrum, and relies on them to comb through satellite images to spot security threats for troops on the ground. Australia’s Department of Defence teamed up with Specialisterne and Hewlett Packard Enterprise to launch its own program in 2016

Sonne adds that even in environments less structured than the military, cyber jobs often entail a more direct way of working than other careers; fixing bugs and patching security holes are jobs that involve straightforward problems and solutions. Employees on the autism spectrum “say what they mean and mean what they say and appreciate being managed in that way,” he says.

Oliver Wyman started its program with temp workers, and now has one full-time staffer (the company calls them “specialists”) on its payroll. In addition to finding ways to automate and streamline the company’s once-unwieldy travel reimbursement process — Vanheusden says all expenses are reimbursed within five days — the worker has made data entry more efficient and helped clean up the company’s client management system.

Rethinking the hiring process

Still, despite the potential benefits for employers, such workers face long odds of employment. Autistic people have a wide range of communication and intellectual capabilities — about half are considered high-functioning, meaning they have average-or-above IQs. Because of that wide range in ability, employment statistics vary, but experts estimate that between 70 and 90 percent are unemployed or underemployed nationally, according to a 2013 paper from Drexel University.

One of the biggest obstacles is the typical interview process. “It can be hard for autistic people to excite a recruiter, and unfortunately, that is how the labor market works,” says Sonne of Specialisterne. They aren’t going to sell themselves. “If asked, ‘What you are good at?’ an autistic person might say, ‘I’m not really good at this because I can be better.’ So, we have to recruit people in different ways. Let them show instead of tell, because that will level the playing field.”

“The caliber of these people who can’t get jobs because they interviewed badly” is often quite high, says Rob Austin, a professor at Ivey Business School in London, Ontario, who has written extensively on incorporating neurodiverse workers into IT and business operations. “If they’re not unemployed, they’re underemployed. We have people with patents or someone with a master’s bagging groceries at the supermarket.”

Hiring people on the spectrum isn’t just good for business, says Austin: It’s also good for society. “A lot of these people would have to be taken care of with social safety nets. Taking them off that and getting a productive worker who pays taxes can be a huge positive.”

To find those individuals, Specialisterne helps companies retool their interview processes into more of a multi-phase tryout. Candidates go through a four-week assessment, showcasing their skills through problem-solving challenges and programming tasks, such as building simple robots with Lego blocks. Those who might be a good fit for a certain job move on to a tryout with the company, which pairs the worker with a job coach to coordinate their needs, and, if the candidate is hired, make onboarding as smooth as possible.

1 million new workers

A network of support — both in and out of the office — is crucial. Surprising obstacles can arise for both management and workers. Early in Oliver Wyman’s program, one specialist nearly quit because he needed to ask for time off, and the prospect of doing so was so daunting. Another tried to quit because the bus he took to the office was always five minutes late.

“After a couple of weeks, he said, ‘I am going to quit; the bus is not following the schedule I have in my hands. It’s not on time and that is very stressful to me,’” Vanheusden remembers. “So his job coach scratched off the time and adjusted it by five minutes. Those are areas that may seem small to us, but it enables them to be successful.”

In addition to expanding its own program in the coming years, Oliver Wyman hopes to leverage its network as a consulting firm to match qualified workers with roles in its sister organizations. Specialisterne, which has operations in 19 countries, has ambitions to match 1 million workers with jobs globally.

“Our focus has been very much in IT and sectors like cybersecurity, but we also helped 18 autistic people become pig farmers in Australia,” says Sonne. Those workers “have to love working with animals and have attention to detail. They may not have been right for cybersecurity jobs, but pig farming has been perfect for them.”