Microsoft, SAP, and Dell are among tech giants hiring workers with autism, as demand for those jobs is forecast to surge over the coming years.
Companies have found autistic workers perform Artificial Intelligence tasks well and the employment opportunities are helping them move out of low-wage, menial occupations.
People with autism do well on AI jobs that require hours on tedious tasks such as labeling photos and videos for computer vision systems. Many autistic people are good at spotting patterns, which makes them useful in detecting bugs in software code.
“They have this mindset that makes them be able to do their work as accurately the first time as the hundredth time and the thousandth time,” Chelsea Asaro, outreach coordinator for the National Foundation for Autism Research, told Karma. “We’re starting to see a groundswell of interest in hiring people with autism.”
While AI, algorithms and machine learning are expected to create 133 million jobs by 2022, they will replace another 75 million, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 study. That’s a net gain of 58 million new jobs over the next few years.
About 50 companies have so-called neurodiversity hiring programs, according to the Wall Street Journal. Among them is accounting firm Ernst & Young, employing about 80 people on the spectrum, more than double the figure from a year ago. They had held low-wage jobs such as janitor, Uber driver and pizza deliverer. Now, they work at the company’s five “U.S. neurodiversity centers of excellence.”
Autistic workers were members of teams that automated EY consulting contracts. They also helped develop a tax-deduction-finding network using AI that processes five years’ worth of paperwork in 12 minutes, WSJ said.
“We don’t look at it as charity or corporate social responsibility,” Hiren Shukla, the EY executive in charge of the neurodiversity initiatives, told the newspaper, adding that hiring autistic workers was “a business imperative.”
New York City’s Ultranauts is an engineering start-up that employs autistic employees, and on Tuesday announced securing $3.5 million in Series A financing. SustainVC and The Disability Opportunity Fund led the round with Cognizant Vice Chairman Frank D’Souza, Bain & Co. Chief Talent Officer Russ Hagey and advocate & philanthropist Lisa Yang also participating.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is among the backers of Auticon, a German-based information consultancy that exclusively hires autistic workers. It has operations in England, France, Switzerland, and the U.S, among other countries. Founded in 2011, the company employs more than 130 people on the autism spectrum.
“With Auticon, many of our consultants experience their very first permanent employment (and are) appreciated for the first time for their way of working,” according to the company.
The economic benefits for giving job training to autistic workers are many. According to the non-profit Autism Speaks, the costs to society for caring for autistic Americans reached $268 billion in 2015. That may reach $461 billion by 2025, with the majority of those expenses coming in adulthood since many autistic individuals are unemployed.
Only 11% of respondents in a 2016 Drexel University survey on autism had a job. Almost 70% received financial help from family and friends, and another 40% received Supplemental Security Income for disabled or low-income individuals.
For a successful partnership, expectations have to realistic from both the employee and employer. Asaro reminds managers that not every person on the spectrum is a savant like Dr. Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory:” they account for less than 10% of people on the spectrum. Since autistic workers are socially awkward, some companies have found that conventional job interviews aren’t a useful way to assess autistic employees.
Managers are trained on how to accommodate their autistic employees by adjusting lighting and allowing them to wear noise-canceling headphones because they have sensory-processing issues.
Workers, in turn, are given social skills training on how to be successful in corporate America. And they become loyal employees because they value stability and find it difficult to accept change, Asaro says.
To be sure, finding qualified employees is one of the biggest challenges facing the tech industry. U.S. employers had more than 78,000 openings for software and app developers as of July, according to trade group CompTIA.
Workers with autism can earn six-figure salaries in the tech sector once they gain experience and training, Rebecca Beam, Auticon’s U.S. president, told Karma.
“There isn’t enough tech talent out there,” she said. “There’s an untapped workforce with individuals on the spectrum who have been unable to secure employment. Companies realize that they need to open their doors to people with disabilities.”