Neurotribe Finds Promised Land

Ultra Testing shows that autism in the workplace can be a feature, not a bug.

The producers of the Webby awards recently hired a small company called Ultra Testing to examine their website for bugs. The Ultra team identified 20 percent more issues than the previous testers had, including glitches that arose when the site ran on different browsers. They delivered “a level of quality assurance that I have never seen in my 14 years of Web development,” says Steve Marchese, the executive producer of the Webby awards.

What makes Ultra Testing different from the many other companies that perform quality checks on websites and software programs is that most of its testers are on the autism spectrum.

Some individuals on the spectrum excel at pattern recognition and work with laser-like focus, says Lynda Geller, a clinical psychologist who has at least one former patient now employed at Ultra. “They tend to become intensely fixated on certain topics, and if they’re fixated on computer use they can be extra valuable to a company,” she says. For some projects, Ultra employees come up with test cases for how an application or website is used, and then work through these cases, either manually or with automated scripts, in search of bugs. For other projects, they may inspect clients’ code directly. Projects can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to several years.

Ultra Testing was founded on the premise that hiring people on the autism spectrum and supporting other kinds of neurodiversity can give companies a competitive advantage, rather than simply being a good deed. Art Shectman, who co-founded the company in 2013, says that Ultra is trying to provide a model of success for other for-profit companies to emulate.

Over the next 10 years, an estimated half million people with autism will reach adulthood. Yet the unemployment rate for people on the spectrum is estimated to be as high as 85 percent—which is higher than the figure for individuals with learning disabilities or various forms of emotional disturbance. For those who do find work, it is often low-skilled; only 35 percent of 18-year-olds on the spectrum go to college.

For Ultra, addressing this problem meant rethinking the hiring process, which tends to be a barrier for individuals on the spectrum. It also meant creating a novel company culture, in which rules and expectations are codified to an unusual degree, with the goal of making people on the spectrum comfortable and enabling them to thrive.

The unemployment rate for people on the spectrum is estimated to be as high as 85 percent.

The differences begin with job interviews. Interviews at many companies disadvantage people who struggle with social interaction, unnecessarily cutting off a great deal of talent. “Most research says that the interview process is baloney,” Shectman says. Even among autistic people with college degrees, many have “lousy resumes,” with little work history, he says. So Ultra created an alternative screening process, which does not require resumes or cover letters. Instead Ultra uses questionnaires, essays, and tests, which are conducted remotely, to suss out candidates with particular skills, like pattern recognition, as well as certain behavioral traits, like “coachability” and perseverance.

Later in the recruitment process, when the company does conduct interviews, they are highly structured, including questions like “have you recently learned a new technical software application or tool?” The process culminates in a week-long class that simulates work. A high percentage of the candidates who complete the class go on to join the company.

Identifying skillful software testers is only the first step. “There’s this myth that if you just get autistics in the door,” they will manage in the workplace, says Marcelle Ciampi, who is Ultra’s community manager, leads recruitment, and is herself on the spectrum. “But they still need to be themselves once they’re hired.” So the company has developed a set of tools aimed at making the work environment, including other people in it, easier for staffers to decipher. Employees create personal “user manuals,” which colleagues are encouraged to consult, particularly at the start of new projects. These guides describe the learning styles they prefer, the triggers that impede them, and the ways that supervisors and colleagues can help. One employee notes, for instance, that “sudden changes in schedule” and “being the focus of attention” are problematic. He also says that supervisors can help by remembering: “I don’t have the best social skills, so if I seem rude I didn’t mean to.”

Employees at Ultra typically work remotely and communicate over email or Slack. This means they can process information with a lag, rather than in real time. But even during virtual meetings, “we can choose to keep our faces hidden,” says Ciampi. (That’s a preference she has specified in her personal user manual. She also notes that she has dyslexia and dysgraphia — a writing disability — and wants colleagues to know that when they see typos in her emails, “I’m not being careless. I might have spent an hour editing, I just didn’t see it.”)

In addition to helping employees decipher each other’s needs, Ultra attempts to codify workplace conventions that non-autistic employees might find easier to intuit. “We find that writing down the unwritten roles, all the tribal and folklore knowledge in the company, is critical,” says Shectman. For instance, because some autistic people tend to elaborate too much, Ultra advises employees to write their emails in fewer than 700 characters and seven sentences. If an interaction with a client continues for more than two back-and-forth exchanges, employees are instructed to tell a supervisor, since it may be that there’s an underlying issue that the employee is just not picking up on.

Ultra Testing says that when it assessed the digital platform of a financial services company it detected 56 percent more bugs than the previous group of testers.

Autistic people navigating the world are sometimes described as trying to understand a foreign culture. Temple Grandin said she was like “an anthropologist on Mars,” (which became the title of Oliver Sacks’ profile of her). The autism advocate Jim Sinclair once described himself, in an essay, as “an extraterrestrial stranded without an orientation manual.” For its part, Ultra addresses this sense of disorientation head-on, providing its employees with codified descriptions — sometimes verging on algorithmic instructions — for handling clients, colleagues, and other aspects of the working world.

The result is a company that appears to be thriving. In 2013, Ultra had two clients and five employees. By last year, the client list had grown to 45, and the company employed over 50 individuals, with roughly 75 percent of them on the autism spectrum. Ultra’s revenue is on track to double in 2017, according to its founders.

If this success can help normalize the hiring of individuals on the spectrum, it could also lead to greater acceptance of the accommodations that make their employment fruitful. The broader neurodiversity movement emphasizes the strengths, rather than the deficits, of individuals on the spectrum. “They are socially different and need an environment that doesn’t harm them for being socially different,” says Geller. “It shouldn’t be that hard.” Other software companies, including Microsoft and SAP, have also developed programs for employees on the spectrum, suggesting an increased commitment to hiring and retaining them.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ultra’s success is the degree to which it has normalized work for the employees themselves. John Cha, 29, who started as a software tester in 2013, says it was his “first real job.”

Cha has developed expertise in testing digital platforms for their accessibility — that is, how usable they are for people who rely on a computer keyboard, rather than a mouse, to navigate, perhaps because they are visually impaired. In one project, Cha and his colleagues assessed the digital platform of a large financial services company and detected 56 percent more bugs than the previous group of testers, from IBM, had been able to do, according to Ultra Testing.

Now the fact of his employment has become routine for Cha. When asked whether he plans to stay on, he says, simply: “The work is interesting, and I like the people. As long as those two conditions apply, I will be here.”