Business

Triangle companies start opening doors and opportunities for autistic workers

Interns thrive in Autism Spectrum program at SAS

SAS provides valuable work experience for autistic students, enabling them to thrive and contribute in software design and development.
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SAS provides valuable work experience for autistic students, enabling them to thrive and contribute in software design and development.

“When you do something that feels meaningful and engaging,” said Chris Rackley, a 22-year-old intern at SAS Institute, “that is the best thing you can do on the planet,”

But for people like Rackley, who are on the autism spectrum, finding an engaging and meaningful job can sometimes feel impossibly hard.

Five of his good friends — all of whom are “brilliant” and autistic, Rackley noted — are underemployed for the simple fact that they struggle with one traditional way of landing a job: nailing an interview.

“We’re a population of very intelligent people, but we’re terrible at interviewing,” he said. “So, when we have a job interview, we freeze up.”

In the Triangle, some companies are beginning to experiment with new programs meant to tear down those barriers that confront people like Rackley, who works in user experience design at SAS.

And across the U.S., companies are coming to the realization that they’ve been systematically excluding a large population of qualified workers during a time when a decades-low unemployment rate has made finding talented workers difficult.

Many of them — like SAS, Credit Suisse and Fidelity in the Triangle — are all a little over a year into attempting to make their workplaces and cultures more accessible to those on the autism spectrum.

Underemployed talent

With the U.S. unemployment rate at its lowest since the late 1960s, companies across all industries will tell you that filling open positions has become one of their hardest tasks. And at the same time, workers with autism often miss out on those opportunities.

A 2015 study from Drexel University found that about 42% of autistic students who had special education in high school didn’t have a paid job in the first six years after graduating. For those who go on to graduate college, around 85% are unemployed or underemployed, said Tara Cunningham, CEO of Specialisterne USA, an organization that helps companies bring on autistic workers.

Cunningham said she has worked with individuals who had MBAs or law degrees and ended up delivering pizzas or just went unemployed because they couldn’t get through the traditional hiring routes. It was wasting talent, she said.

“We’re being very cognizant of wanting to make sure we’re casting a much larger net,” said Danielle Pavliv, SAS’ manager of diversity and inclusion.

She added it’s been “a missed opportunity” not making it easier for autistic people to get opportunities at SAS, as they often bring great attention to detail, sharp analysis and a different perspective that can find solutions others miss.

The company launched an internship last year for those on the autism spectrum and in its first year it has resulted in six interns, two of whom had their stays with the company extended.

One of them was Rackley, who has gotten high praise from his managers.

His manager, Rajiv Ramarajan, said one of SAS’ design goals is to make software accessible across ability levels — and Rackley brought a valuable perspective toward that goal.

“Our brains work inherently different than somebody who isn’t autistic,” Rackley said. “So, we’re gonna look at it differently. It’s just part of our existence.”

What are the barriers?

Autism spectrum disorder is exactly that: a spectrum. It varies in type and severity from one person to another, with some people living independently and others needing more assistance.

But generally autism means having difficulty communicating and interacting with others. To counteract that in the recruiting process, companies have modified how they conduct interviews.

For SAS that meant providing questions in advance, the use of a video interview platform that gives applicants multiple attempts at answering a question as well as unlimited time.

There’s also the benefit that both the interviewer and the applicant can be open about autism now, so a lack of eye contact or a strange response doesn’t lead to a bad first impression.

Often times, said Mike Chapman of UNC-Chapel Hill’s TEACCH Autism Program, the interview process with a company is more about selling your likability, and that can be hard for people with autism.

“People wouldn’t mention” they had autism before, Chapman said. But “mentioning it now is no longer something that would preclude you from working for that company. It now will help you get accommodations in the interview process.”

More than interviews

But potential barriers to success don’t stop after the interview.

At SAS, before they even begin work, those taking part in the program visit the campus months in advance to get comfortable with the environment. They receive professional development training from UNC TEACCH and they are assigned a mentor who checks in with them occasionally.

They are also encouraged to tell their managers directly what they personally need to do their work.

For Drew Wock, a junior at N.C. State University and a software development intern, that meant having a personalized space to do work rather than a cubicle, which offered distractions from the rest of the office.

Wock, 20, now shares a purple-lit office with Rackley, where the two can retreat from distractions.

The two office mates have developed a strong rapport in the past months and often share jokes and their experiences with each other. They have also developed a pastime of debating ethical thought experiments, such as the trolley problem.

Having that unique space helps Wock, who likes to work in “rapid bursts of intense focus.”

“Being in a room that’s vastly different and has kind of a different aura from other places,” he said, “and having that exclusively when I’m working, means that if I leave it and return to it, I am going to be mentally primed to go back to working.”

Companies following each other

Cunningham, of Specialisterne USA, said a lot of credit for the rise in neurodiversity programs belongs to the efforts of tech giants Microsoft and SAP, which first started publicizing their programs for autistic workers about five years ago.

Before that, she said, there really wasn’t a movement among the largest employers in the U.S. to view this population as a potential asset.

“Because (those companies) were able to show that autistic teams were productive and effective, then people wanted to have a part of it,” she said. “It made business sense rather than it just being a nice thing to do.”

In 2017, fresh off the repeal of House Bill 2, Credit Suisse pledged it would expand its headcount at its Research Triangle Park office, a hub that includes many technology and artificial intelligence roles.

The company realized that diversifying its recruiting policies could help the company fill some of those job openings.

“There is a shortage of tech talent ... while the employment rate for neurodiverse talent is well below the average,” Ro Lissenden, a director of IT at Credit Suisse, said in an email. “So definitely this is a pool worth fostering and supporting.”

Credit Suisse — as well as SAS — has also been able to take advantage of local programs funded by universities and the state government, like UNC’s TEACCH Autism and LiNC-IT, which connects autistic workers with internship opportunities.

The bank hired six apprentices in May, working on topics such as automation, dataset analysis and natural language processing.

Already, the company has converted two of them to permanent employees and it is planning to bring on three to four more neurodiverse employees this year, Lissenden added. (Credit Suisse said that apprentices make the same as any entry-level graduate and when moved to a full-time role make market value for that position.)

Not just tech

So far, it has been mainly tech companies that have led the efforts in neurodiversity, but it would be a mistake to think that autistic people can only do tech jobs, Cunningham warned.

She said she views technology jobs as “a Trojan horse” to get more autistic people employed at companies.

Often she finds that a company will start by hiring 10 autistic employees for tech jobs. But by the time they get to their next round of hiring, you usually see dozens more placed across a variety of departments, like marketing and product management.

“People fixate on tech,” she said, “but that is not everything that autistic people can do.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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