Autism Awareness and Acceptance: Can This Bridge the Tech Talent Gap? 

The competition to hire top tech talents has become fiercer as technology develops faster. As high-skilled tech talents become scarce and only a few enter the market, the tech talent pipeline has become tight, compelling companies to compete for top candidates. The demand for tech talents exceeds the supply, thus causing a tech talent gap. 

Is there truly a tech talent gap? 

Think about it this way. For years, companies have probably been looking into a small pond of tech talents instead of venturing into the ocean. With the current hiring process where candidates go through the sink-or-swim screening and companies using a standard-issue hiring net, they are likely missing their opportunity to catch the big fish. 

Major tech companies like Microsoft and many others did not only venture into the sea with a custom-built net; they created their own ocean to find top tech talents that have been left undiscovered for so long. We’re talking about brilliant tech talents with autism.

But first, what is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, behave, and learn. It is described as a “developmental disorder” because its symptoms generally show in the first two years of life, but it can also be diagnosed at any age.

People with ASD often have difficulty communicating and interacting with other people, have restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, and have symptoms that affect their ability to function in school, work, and other areas of life. ASD isn’t a disease that needs to be cured, nor is it infectious. Although it is a lifelong condition, people diagnosed with ASD can improve symptoms with therapy and professional intervention and learn new skills. These symptoms are often the reason for unemployment and the underemployment of talented people with ASD. 

Stereotypes and Prejudice

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1% of the world’s population has autism spectrum disorder – over 75,000,000 people, and according to the Office for National Statistics, only 21.7% of autistic adults are in any employment, the lowest among the disabled group.

We, as human beings, have irrational and unjustifiable negative opinions about others different from us, and people with autism are one of those that suffer because of prejudice and stereotypes. 

People’s preconceived perceptions of individuals with autism can be on the extreme ends of the autism spectrum. Many think that people with ASD either have extraordinary and exceptional mental abilities or have intellectual disabilities.

Many still believe that everyone with ASD is dependent and can’t do anything independently. People assume that they can’t speak or can’t learn, or are very violent. We must understand that autistic people are all different; hence the term Autistic Spectrum Disorder, like how anyone has a distinct ability from another. Like everyone else, autistic individuals have different learning abilities and can develop new skills with the help of professionals.

What needs to change?

Companies screen out talents just before they discover their skills, aside from the stereotypes and prejudice against people with ASD. Companies’ job listings often include requirements like team player or good communication skills, which automatically exclude neurodiverse applicants who struggle with social interactions and communication. And with companies turning to automation to sort through and screen applicants, individuals on the spectrum are weeded by resume-screening algorithms configured to disregard applications with no related degrees or certifications listed.

Individuals on the spectrum who made it to interviews often stumble due to interviewers’ open-ended questions. “What interests you about this position? What is your favorite programming language and why? What is the extent of your technical expertise?” Questions like these are hard for them to answer as they do not know what is being asked precisely, and they end up failing the interviews because they freeze up thinking about how to answer the questions.

The hiring process involving neurodivergent candidates needs to be more inclusive and be patterned to their conditions. Rephrasing questions to be less open-ended and working interviews where they would be allowed to demonstrate their skills would work well with individuals with autism.

Patricia Evans, a neurologist at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, says individuals on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum usually have a fantastic ability to hyper-focus on a task. She also said: “They may really flourish at engineering-type tasks or computer design, where their interaction with people is somewhat limited.”

Hiring people with autism brings diversity to the workplace. There are abilities prevalent among many on the high-functioning end of the spectrum that proves to be ideal in careers in technology. Abilities like sustained focus even in repetitive tasks, logical and analytical skills, attention to detail, deviations, errors, quality-oriented, etc. Individuals on the spectrum can be valuable assets, and their so-called weaknesses can be their strengths in the tech industry. 

9 Companies Making Neurodiversity Work in their Workplaces

Neurodiversity in workplaces is worldwide advocacy in progress. With the inclusion programs of tech companies hiring people with an autism spectrum diagnosis makes a beneficial impact both in the industry and in the lives of people with ASD. We listed companies that have begun tapping into the untapped labor pool often overlooked as a source of tech talents. 

SAP

Launched in 2013, SAP’s Autism at Work Program aims to leverage people’s unique abilities and perspectives on the autism spectrum to foster innovation. By reducing the barriers to entry, their program taps into the underutilized talent source so that qualified individuals can develop their potential and be their unique selves in a comfortable workplace.

Since then, the program has branched out and created the SAP Purpose Network Live 5-part series “SAP Autism at Work: Accelerating Workforce Inclusion” to shed light on how neurodiversity can enhance an organization’s culture and challenge preconceived perceptions about neurodivergent individuals. The 5-part series highlights how well neurodiversity can strengthen an organization holistically and how it can transform the workforce. 

To enable and accelerate neurodiversity in the workplace, SAP introduced their Autism Inclusion Pledge initiative to re-shape how companies think about employment possibilities for individuals on the autism spectrum by providing organizations who wish to be more autism inclusive with free resources about SAP’s best practices and lessons learned in their journey.

Microsoft

Microsoft modified its hiring process to give neurodivergent individuals opportunities to showcase their unique talents. Microsoft launched its initiative called Autism Hiring Program back in April 2015 with the goal to hire people on the autism spectrum for full-time positions in their company.

Today their program is called Microsoft Neurodiversity Hiring Program. This neurodiversity program sought to attract talented neurodivergent candidates to join their ranks; they provide training and support for career success. At Microsoft, various roles are open to applicants through their program, including software engineer, service engineer, build engineer, lab engineer, data analyst, and data scientist.

Auticon

Auticon is a global IT consulting firm that advocates for neurodiversity in the workplace by employing 200 individuals with autism out of their 300 employees. As a company, they view neurodiversity as a market advantage. Neurodivergent employees offer diverse thinking, they excel in roles that involve repetitious tasks that require keen attention to detail, and they can communicate their opinions without biases.

With the ongoing pandemic, Auticon’s US CEO David Aspinall discovered the benefits of hiring tech talents with autism for remote work. In an article published by CNBC, Aspinall said, “Having a team capable of working from home is very powerful. Not only does it bring more diverse ways of thinking to a team, but it’s also an ideal way to make sure that you’re staffed up with people who naturally excel at remote work.” 

Ultranauts

Ultraunauts is a start-up company offering software and data quality engineering services; what makes them unique is that it has become its mission to demonstrate that there is a competitive advantage for businesses in enabling neurodiversity in the workplace. Ultranauts worked with the CEOs of Integrate Autism Employment Advisors and Global and Regional Autism Spectrum Partnership (GRASP).

Jointly, they put together a job description and distributed it through the GRASP’s network. The effort brought on 150 applicants with degrees but without experience in software testing. After careful selection, they hired three people who proved they could perform well as someone who had years of experience in the industry. After launching in 2013, Ultranauts has more than 75% of their company’s employees who are neurodivergent, and the majority are on the autism spectrum. 

IBM

IBM launched IBM Ignite Autism Spectrum Disorder Program in 2017 to support individuals on the spectrum struggling to find employment despite their talents. The program provides the needed planning, resources, and support to successfully launch talented employees’ careers on the spectrum. IBM emphasizes its efforts in onboarding the new hires and gives adequate support as they navigate their new employment environment.

To provide a comfortable workplace for their neurodivergent colleagues, they simplify and clarify potentially complex instructions through IBM’s Watson application, Content Clarifier; they also provide headphones to help reduce possibly bothersome noise. They also help the neurodivergent workforce combat social anxieties by involving them in regular meetings and other social activities. 

Dell

Dell launched the Dell Neurodiversity Hiring Program to provide career readiness training and possible full-time career opportunities for neurodivergent job seekers. Their pilot program pre-screens candidates and invites them to participate in a skills-based interview process that lasts for two weeks, followed by a 12-week summer internship for the selected adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Google

Google Cloud’s Autism Career Program worked with experts from Stanford Neurodiversity Project. The company trains 500 Google Cloud managers and others involved in the hiring process to empower them to work effectively and empathetically with autistic candidates and ensure that their onboarding processes are accessible and equitable.

They seek to employ people with ASD and change the interview processes. Their interview process removes unfair disadvantages to give autistic candidates a fair and honest chance to compete for the job; they do this by giving them the option to do a written interview or give them extra time to answer. 

HP 

HP launched the Spectrum Success Program pilot program in February 2018, leveraging the talents of individuals on the autism spectrum through paid internships. They worked with Vocational Rehabilitation and PROVAIL to attract and prepare candidates for the intense interviews.

The Spectrum Success Program provides tech talents on the spectrum opportunity to gain job experience, develop skills, acquire reputable references, and build confidence to pursue a career in tech. With talent as their only criteria, the program is focused on recruiting, hiring, and retaining qualified candidates with autism. 

Aspiritech 

Aspiritech is a non-profit corporation that hires autistic adults to help provide software testing and quality assurance services. The company was founded in 2008 by Brenda and Moshe Weitzberg to find suitable employment for their adult autistic son. Despite being college-educated and capable, he had difficulties finding work that suited his talents.

They researched a Denmark company that employed adults doing software QA testing and found the answer for their son. From its kitchen table start-up, Aspiritech now has more than 120 employees. The company provides social programs and employment training for their employees and adults with autism in their community.

Awareness and Acceptance Can Be the Answer

Autism is just one among several conditions that fall under the diagnostic umbrella of neurodiversity. The spectrum includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Kanner’s syndrome, and Tourette syndrome. Rather than viewing these differences as handicaps, experts urge recognizing and respecting neurodiversity as just one of many human variations.

As mentioned earlier, there is a tech talent gap, and companies struggle to hire top tech talents that fit their needs. Companies’ inability to recognize and accept the differences people on the spectrum offer is one of the causes of the gap. One remedy to this is the cause itself.

If only more companies recognize and accept that people on the autism spectrum are no different from other workers except that they are autistic; if only more companies move toward neurodiversity and inclusion, bridging the tech talent gap can be easier to accomplish. 

It is not enough to just be aware, we must learn to accept that there is a tech talent trove on the autism spectrum waiting and ready to be uncovered. People with autism are just that, people with autism.

They have talents, and they are eager to be part of a workforce that would recognize their skills and welcome them warmly. There will be challenges, that’s for sure, but as the saying goes, strength lies in our differences. 

All of us are different, may we learn to accept our differences, work together, and celebrate!

Happy World Autism Awareness Day!

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