Neurodiversity at work: a 360 degree view

In this guest blog, we hear from our friends at auticon, an International IT service provider with a mission to 'improve the employment prospects of autistic people through providing high quality careers, shifting perceptions in the workplace, and encouraging others to welcome neurodiversity to their wider workforce'...

Photo of auticon employees with the title 'Neurodiversity at work: a 360 degree view'

Can you tell us a little bit about auticon and what makes it unique?

Auticon is an international IT service provider that exclusively employs people on the autism spectrum as technology consultants. In the US, the majority of our tech consultants are working in QA or testing automation. We are unique because approximately two-thirds of our staff is autistic and everything we do at auticon is built around making sure each of our staff members is being accommodated to reach his or her full potential, so that we can provide the highest quality of work to our clients. 

What supports do you provide during the hiring process to make the recruitment experience a positive one for individuals on the autism spectrum?

Usually, people reach out to us via email after hearing about us in the press or they get referred to us by autism-support organizations. Our career opportunities range from entry-level to experienced professional roles. In some cases, we offer on-the-job training and paid internships. 

Our first step, regardless of what someone’s resume or experience is like, is an “informal chat”. We call it this on purpose because the word “interview” can be anxiety-inducing for a lot of people on the spectrum due to their past experiences with interviews. We want this to be a casual and easy process. That chat is usually over the phone and is just to get to know the candidate and their interest. If it seems like a good fit, we invite them into the office for an assessment. 

The assessment is hands-on and tests the skills needed to complete the job and/or the traits that will help someone excel in QA, like attention to detail. We’re accepting of candidates that may not make eye contact, wear sunglasses, have fidget toys, or come in wearing sensory-friendly sweat clothes; our goal is to be accommodating and focus on their ability to succeed at the job. 

Two auticon employees working at a computer, one wearing noise cancelling headphones

Do you hire autistic people across all departments of the organization? And if so, why is that an important part of your business model?

The short answer to this is yes, we hire autistic people for any role at auticon. However, most of our autistic staff work in technical roles in QA or automation, and an autism diagnosis is a requirement to be employed as a Software Analyst. The reason for this is that we find that our autistic employees outperform neurotypical or non-autistic software testers. 

We do have autistic employees in other roles as well, including finance, business development/marketing, and as our lead trainer for our software training. Even though we do not yet have autistic people in every level of our organization, it is our end goal and we are working towards it. For example, we have some Senior Analysts who started in training and as interns and are now ready to be promoted to Leads as soon as we have that opening. In general, we believe in the “nothing about us without us” mindset, so in any big company decision, the management consults with our autistic employees to make sure that we are getting it right. 

What are the different types of employment models auticon practices before their employees begin working with clients? What are some of the unique benefits and challenges of each of those models?

We have two main employment models. The first is our software training model, which requires no background in tech and starts with a 4-week training program. This is in person, in our office, led by an autistic consultant; it is free and no strings attached. The training track is a way for the candidate to get their feet wet in QA, get some basic skills, and see if it’s what they want to build their career in. They also get to experience the office environment and we get to see how they work within that environment. If they pass the training, they may be offered a paid, part-time internship that is usually 250 hours. After the internship, they become an Analyst 1, which puts them on a whole career path up to management. Along the way, they are 100% supported by our Job Coaches and our highly trained Leads and Project Managers. Employees in this track primarily work in one of our offices remotely for clients, which makes it a better choice for people that need more specific environmental accommodations (lighting, desks, etc.) because we can easily accommodate those types of needs in our offices. 

The other model is an onsite model, where the Technologist is placed with a client at the client’s office. This track is the best option for people that already have experience in a tech field like software development, data analytics, or cybersecurity and have experience working in traditional offices, but may have struggled with lacking accommodations in previous roles. For the onsite model, we match our employees, who we refer to as consultants, with a client need. Then we train the client on what autism is and, most importantly, what accommodations each individual consultant needs to thrive. While placed at a client site, the consultant is still an auticon employee and has full support and regular check-ins with our Job Coaches and Project Managers. 

How does auticon prepare clients to work with consultants that are on the spectrum? How do you handle issues that may arise?

Typically, we do an initial briefing covering “autism 101” and basic “autism in the workplace”. There are so many stereotypes and misconceptions out there about autism, and this briefing helps to debunk those. Then we talk about the specific needs or accommodations of our employee (i.e. needs to wear headphones, prefers written communication, prefers low lighting) that is going to be on site. Our Job Coach, Project Manager, and employee will work together to make sure all accommodations are being met and there are clear channels of support and communication. 

Setting everyone up for success is part of our DNA, so we luckily don’t have many issues arise. But when they do, depending on what the issue is, we usually have the client bring it up to the Project Manager or Job Coach and they can build the best plan of action together. Usually, any issues that do arise are fixed by a simple modification in communication of expectations or work environment. 

An auticon employee at a computer

What processes do you have in place to retain your employees and ensure they’re continuing to get the necessary supports they need to be successful at auticon and with their clients?

I would say there are three main things that contribute to this.

  1. We treat every employee as an individual. Just because two people are autistic and working in the same role doesn’t mean they will need the same things. We want every employee to have their individual needs met. When employees are in that kind of environment, they don’t want to leave. 
  2. We make changes to the overall office environment so that our employees can be comfortable without having to make special accommodations. For example, we allow anyone to use noise-canceling headphones for focus and to prevent sensory overload. We don’t use the overhead fluorescent lights at all, instead, we have soft light lamps around so people can have it be as light or dark as they need. We also use written and straight forward instructions whenever possible. 
  3. We have a truly open-door policy, literally and figuratively. Literally, unless in a meeting, office doors are always open and anyone can use any of the offices. Even our President will work from the conference room if someone needs to use her office. Figuratively, we have open communication channels for all employees at any level. An intern can comfortably reach out directly to the President and set up a 1:1 meeting. This puts everyone on equal ground and creates a very collaborative and supportive environment. 

What would you say to prospective clients that may be hesitant about working with auticon?

There are a lot of misconceptions about autism, and we hope that our teams set a positive example for neurodiversity in the workplace. We work with some of the biggest companies in the US and Europe and they get not only a very high level of work from us, but they also say that they see positive changes in their business and their management by learning to accommodate peoples’ needs. 

We hope you're as inspired by our friends at auticon as we are!

To learn more about neurodiversity, and how to support neurodiverse talent the workplace, including employees with autism, visit our guide for HR and DEI Managers: Neurodiversity in the Workplace.