Autism in the workplace: A spectrum of hiring choices

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Like many transplants to Chicago, Chris Easton needed to adjust to winter after moving from Atlanta to take a job as a database engineer at the accounting firm EY.

FILE PHOTO: An employee of software company Nuix stands in their office located in central Sydney, Australia, April 5, 2016. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

Among other work-life skills, Easton, 23, who is on the autism spectrum, learned the key to surviving the bone-chilling winds from Lake Michigan: layering.

“Moving from Georgia to Chicago was pretty different. It was definitely a transition,” Easton said.

EY is among a handful of major companies recruiting and hiring individuals with autism spectrum disorders and supporting them at the office. These jobs tend to focus on specific technical skills that can suit individuals on the spectrum who are challenged by social interactions.

The numbers are small so far - Microsoft has about dozens involved in its program, while Deloitte just hired eight into its inaugural round. Dell started with three hires last summer and is doubling this year.

The hiring need, on the other hand, is exponential. Some 1.1 million computing-related jobs are expected by 2024, but U.S. graduation rates are not nearly keeping pace, says Lou Candiello, head of military and disability recruiting programs at Dell. “We need to think different about attracting talent,” Candiello said.

With an estimated global population of 70 million on the autism spectrum - 80 percent of whom are unemployed or severely underemployed - the neurodiverse community is a huge pool to tap.

In aggregate, programs for autistic workers are helping about 200 people a year, while thousands more graduate high school and head “straight to their couches,” said Tara Cunningham, chief executive of Specialisterne USA, a nonprofit organization that helped launch the Autism @ Work network with Microsoft, EY, JPMorgan Chase and SAP. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more graduate and never enter the workforce.


Recruiting individuals on the spectrum for highly prized tech jobs starts very small, with local social service agencies. Goodwill Industries of Greater NY & Northern NJ, for instance, works closely with schools and community centers, identifying people who are unemployed and underemployed but have the skills to do better.

Sometimes coaching and attention to detail does the trick. Celina Cavalluzzi, Goodwill’s director of day services, worked with one young man who wanted a retail job but was having trouble because riding the subway was overstimulating. A coach helped him find a bus route and prepped him for job interviews.

Others are identified for programs like Microsoft’s bootcamp, which runs four times year. Recruits spend five days working on group projects that can involve building Lego Mindstorm robotic kits and meeting with managers.

Roughly 50 percent of the candidates in the program applied to Microsoft before but had been rejected, said Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft.

“We see who works with whom, who gets frustrated. We’re really trying to understand where people shine the best,” Barnett said.

Some candidates, like EY’s Easton, do not have college degrees. Others have graduate degrees but have been underemployed.

“It’s how you see the potential in people,” said Kathy West-Evans, head of the National Employment Team for the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.

West-Evans said one of her clients was collecting shopping carts in the parking lot of a superstore instead of pursuing a job that would make use of his math degree. After getting some help, he is now an engineer at a tech company.


Once candidates are hired, there is help at the office, too. For example, a federal program pays for a job coach for three months to help individuals adjust to the workplace, West-Evans said.

Workplace accommodations can be tricky to identify. Specialisterne does walk-throughs in offices to assess for smells and fluorescent lighting.

“They destroy autistic people,” Cunningham said. “You get LEDs, you ask someone to stop wearing perfume, and you make everyone better.”

Training managers to speak in specific language and to give written instructions helps not only the autistic team members but also everyone else.

“You need to say exactly what you want and when you need it. Then you have the team member tell you back what they heard. Then you go back and put it in an email to everyone and then check on them 20 minutes later. Everyone benefits,” Cunningham said.

When the process works, lives are changed. Hiren Shukla, neurodiversity program leader at EY, describes how one of his hires transformed on the job.

The young man had been living at home, supported by his parents. When his father passed away recently, he was able to buy his own home and move his mother in with him to take care of her.

“This is why we are shouting about this program from the rooftops,” Shukla said.

(In the 5th paragraph, corrects the number involved in Microsoft’s program to dozens from 80)

Reporting by Beth Pinkser; Editing by Lauren Young and Leslie Adler