Global technology group Hewlett Packard’s newest cybersecurity employee spent the past two years grilling burgers at McDonald’s. Like many on the autism spectrum, the young man in his 20s possessed an impressive range of IT skills to match or even outshine most university graduates.
But unlike the average graduate, he didn’t have the social skills to make it past an interview. This is a common stumbling block for those on the spectrum, according to the psychologist Jay Hobbs from Specialisterne – a non-profit agency finding employment for people with autism.
“Being able to communicate and sell yourself was the barrier for him,” he says.
“But he was absolutely excellent. He’s one of those young men who is self-taught, so he was a very capable guy.”
An estimated 230,000 Australians live with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is defined as a developmental condition that affects the way a person relates to their environment and their interaction with other people.
The lifelong condition is well recognised and treated among children, but there is less support for adults with autism. Those on the spectrum describe meeting “the cliff” after secondary school – likening the sudden lack of assistance to falling off a cliff.
Recent research attests to the lack of support: the labour force participation rate is about 42%, compared with 53% labour force participation rate for people with disabilities and 83% for people without disabilities.
Jeanette Purkis, an author and advocate for the autism community, says many people on the spectrum struggle with job interviews as they often find the sensory experience and social interactions in an interview challenging. “Being in front of three people who are essentially deciding their future and firing questions they aren’t prepared for off at them is unlikely to enable an autistic person to demonstrate their skills,” she says.
“Autistic people often do much better in recruitment processes which enable them to demonstrate their skills over time and not in a high stress situation like an interview,” Purkis adds.
Hobbs says it’s an opportunity missed. “When I was working as a teacher in Queensland, I met some really interesting people who had some excellent skills, who in some cases after secondary schools just sat at home and wrote on blogs.
“They weren’t able to get opportunities to get a job largely because of the interview process. Someone with autism finds it a bit difficult to communicate and sell themselves as opposed to actually doing what the job would be – programming or testing software for example.”
Yet the tide is turning for unemployed or underemployed people with autism. More companies are ditching the stereotypes of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man and Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, and realising the benefits of employing people on the autism spectrum.
Big names include mining company Weir Minerals, cloud computing firm Salesforce, Bankwest and Hewlett Packard. Software multinational SAP has even committed that people with ASD will account for 1% of its global workforce by 2020.
The director of human resources at SAP Australia and New Zealand, Lisa Christy, says the goal is consistent with the percentage of people on the spectrum in the general population.
“SAP believes that a cornerstone element of innovation is the diversity of those who participate in the creative process and the perspectives they bring to the table, including the perspective of those on the autism spectrum,” she says.
The effort to broaden the company’s diversity beyond race or gender started in 2012 when SAP Labs India hired five employees on the spectrum. Successful pilot projects in India and Ireland demonstrated the positive impact of empowering autistic people with a job that played to their strengths.
Research points to the clear corporate advantages of hiring autistic staff, including a surge in innovative and creative thinking.
A study by Curtin University’s school of public health found that the cost of employing an autistic person was comparative with the cost of employing a non-autistic person. The research involved almost 100 employees and 59 employers, who reported benefits from employing staff with ASD, including a high attention to detail and when compared with staff without ASD, a higher work ethic and quality of work.
Add to the momentum, comments by the PayPal founder, Peter Thiel, who has long been a proponent of hiring staff with autism and Asperger’s to avoid what he describes as “herd-like thinking and behaviour”. In his book Zero to One, Thiel says people with Asperger’s have a single-mindedness that gives startups a unique advantage
This theory stems from the idea of neurodiversity, a term first coined by the Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who sees autism as a natural brain variation, not a brain disorder.
Dr Tele Tan is not surprised by the corporate world’s increasing interest in hiring autistic people. Tan, from Curtin’s autism academy for software quality assurance, oversees a weekend coding club for secondary students aged 12 to 16. The club, like others across Australia focusing on IT and robotics, is where autistic teenagers explore their technical talents while also picking up social skills.
Tan’s students typically have high attention to detail and an ability to concentrate on tasks and do repetitive tasks, making them ideal for companies searching for an innovative edge.
“There is anecdotal evidence that people on the spectrum have a huge innovation behind them – out of the box thinking, a non-traditional way of thinking,” he says. “They can potentially solve big problems.”
But autistic people aren’t limited to the IT industry. Specialisterne has recently launched the Autism and Agriculture employment scheme to develop career paths for those with autism in specialist animal care roles. The organization is also taking aim at other industries, including art and engineering. It’s the start of a new frontier for people with autism.