Autistic employees make inroads as companies embrace “neurodiversity”

People with Asperger's Syndrome and other forms of autism often go underemployed, but companies are now waking up to their talents, given the right job

Entrepreneur Andreas Souvaliotis believes his Asperger's Syndrome has been a competitive advantage.

Entrepreneur Andreas Souvaliotis believes his Asperger’s Syndrome has been a competitive advantage. (Andreas Souvaliotis)

In 2013 the German software giant SAP made a commitment to hire one percent of its workforce from among people on the autism spectrum, roughly reflecting the neurological condition’s prevalence in the population at large. For SAP’s largest Canadian operation, in Vancouver, that meant reaching a target of 13 people with autism on the payroll. The office is now most the way to that goal.

“They work in marketing analytics, the third-party IP team, as developers, IT,” says Kirsten Sutton, managing director of SAP Labs Canada. “Many things most of us find redundant and difficult to stay focused on for a long length of time, they thrive in doing.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder, as it has come to be known, is a condition that manifests in a variety of ways, but a few traits are common: high sensitivity to sensory stimuli; social anxiety and difficulty communicating with others; and strong preferences for routine and repetition. Depending on the severity of their symptoms, such factors can make it difficult for people with autism to work; but the condition can also allow them to be deeply focused on tasks they find engaging.

Employers struggling to find talent, especially in information technology, are discovering a mostly untapped pool of candidates on the autism spectrum. Improved diagnosis and support, combined with the explosion of jobs in areas like quality assurance and data entry (where these differently abled employees often outperform), have emboldened companies to wade into this pool where 80% of potential staffers are currently unemployed or underemployed.

Carol Simpson runs an IT outsourcing firm, Focus Professional Services, entirely staffed by people on the spectrum. They perform things like software testing in clients’ offices under contract. One client Simpson was working with said its existing employees boosted their own productivity after the Focus team joined the workplace. “They saw the pace at which our guys worked,” she says. “When our guys get into something, they’re really heads-down and motivated.”

For some of Focus’s 10 consultants, it’s their first paid job, Simpson notes. One team member had 14 jobs by his early 30s, and looks now to finally have found some stability. But it’s not always a seamless process. Because autism is a largely invisible condition, misunderstandings can arise unless co-workers know what their autistic colleagues are capable of and what they aren’t; the latter category may include simple things like greeting co-workers in the morning or keeping their shoes tied. The key to successful integration, Simpson adds, is support from an internal or external facilitator (usually paid for—directly or indirectly—out of federal assistance for companies that hire people with disabilities).

Prospective clients will sometimes ask if they can interview the workers personally before taking Focus on, to which Simpson demurs. “They want to know if there’s a [culture] fit. I can tell them right away there won’t be,” she says flatly. “This is the autism spectrum.”

Andreas Souvaliotis, a serial entrepreneur from Toronto, was only diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, midway through his career. “Young people with this condition have a huge advantage over me—now they know [about it]. It’s so important to understand your limitations and your strengths,” says Souvaliotis, who wrote a book, Misfit, that details how he turned his supposed handicaps (he’s also gay and an immigrant) into an advantage.

People with Asperger’s will have a miniscule error rate performing repetitive tasks compared to employees without the condition, Souvaliotis says. Since interpersonal interactions can be problematic, he’s a big believer in full disclosure, so that supervisors and co-workers know what to expect. And make no mistake, employers do have to make accommodations, depending on the form the disability takes: For example, SAP’s Sutton notes that companies hiring autistic candidates should be transit-accessible, because most people on the spectrum do not drive.

The resources available to accommodate autism in the workplace are expanding. In addition to Focus in Vancouver, there’s also Meticulon in Calgary and Specialisterne in Toronto—agencies that help place autistic candidates in permanent jobs. Founded by a Danish entrepreneur whose adult son had difficulty landing a career, Specialisterne now has offices in 13 countries. Advocates are in the process of setting up an international association, called Neurowrx, that advocates for autism in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“Our mission is to normalize neurodiversity in the workplace,” says Simpson, who has two grown sons on the autism spectrum. Neither, as it happens, have any interest in the IT industry she’s spent her career in. (One is working as a teaching assistant while studying for a master’s degree in math; the other volunteers at an animal shelter.) For this reason, she sees IT as just one of several industries that could benefit from this labour pool; accounting would be a natural fit, she says. “There’s a great opportunity to open up other sectors.”