When his son was diagnosed with a form of high-functioning autism, Dirk MüllerRemus envisioned the kind of future he would have in the workplace: the global unemployment rate for people on the autism spectrum remains at around 80 per cent. So, the German entrepreneur decided to build a company that would create long-term employment opportunities for adults who, like his son, have extraordinary cognitive abilities, but often lack the social skills needed to find a job and retain it.
In 2011, Müller-Remus founded Auticon, a for-profit social enterprise that hires individuals on the autism spectrum as IT consultants and matches their skills to a specific client project. The Berlin-based company’s clients include Glaxo Smith Kline, KPMG and the Virgin Group.
Auticon is now managed by Kurt Schaffer, the group CEO, who expanded the firm’s reach to the UK, France, Italy, Switzerland, Canada and the US. Auticon says it currently employs more than 200 people on the autism spectrum.
Lars Backstrom joined Auticon UK in early 2018 after being out of full-time employment for eight years. He was diagnosed with autism aged 50 and has struggled most of his life with social interactions. “If you don’t form social networks at work, you tend to be a target to be picked on,” he says.
Backstrom is now a consultant for KPMG where he uses complex analytics tools to support the audit team. He requires two key elements to make him feel at ease in the workplace: patience and clarity. “I don’t like being pulled in too many directions at once,” he says.
Auticon job coaches are paired with the consultants to liaise with clients on their behalf. While the consultants perform the IT tasks, the job coaches convey the needs and special requirements of the consultants as they sometimes find it hard to interact with others. Some autistic individuals don’t want to shake hands, for example, or don’t wish to be put on the spot in a meeting. The coaches will make sure clients are aware of this.
Over the past few years there has been a big push in autism advocacy and awareness in the UK, spearheaded by entities such as Auticon and the National Autistic Society. But one of the main challenges, according to Auticon’s UK CEO, Ray Coyle, is to convince autistic individuals to apply for a job.
“The workplace hasn’t been kind to autistic people, and some feel like employers have given up on them,” Coyle says. “Most companies include a job description that is a hypothetical history of the type of individual that they want. It’s very prescriptive and autistic people will often think it doesn’t describe them. We make sure that our job descriptions are deliberately vague.”
Auticon’s London office opened in 2016 and has 36 employees. Of hiring IT consultants, Coyle says the company keeps the process very flexible to make sure every skill is measurable, without being constrained by standardised tests.
The candidates are assessed on their cognitive skills using a test designed with researchers from the University of Berlin. Applicants with relevant tech experience (coding or programming) are then tested on their tech capabilities through the London-based software company Geektastic, which assesses logical analysis, pattern recognition, attention to detail, error detection and sustained concentration.
Job interviews aren’t part of Auticon’s hiring process. Interviews, says Coyle, test the candidate’s social abilities – eye contact, body language, charm. But many people on the autism spectrum can find it challenging to manage the unwritten rules of the workplace and would rather focus on their task.
When Auticon opened its London office three years ago, the Virgin Group was one of the first to back the social enterprise financially. The group’s founder, Richard Branson, has dyslexia which, like autism, is a form of neurodiversity.
While Auticon focuses on tech jobs for high-functioning autistic individuals, there are other entities in the UK that also cater to the needs of people on the autism spectrum. AS Mentoring provides mentoring, recruiting and employment support, and Harry Specters offers young people with autism free training and employment at its chocolate shop.
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