The firm whose staff are all autistic

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ASPartOfMe
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01 Jan 2019, 11:24 pm

BBC

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Peter, Evan and Brian work at a small technology firm based by the beach in Santa Monica, testing software and fixing bugs.

On first inspection it seems like any other Los Angeles-based company, with tasteful art on the white walls and calm-inducing diffusers dotted about.

Peter describes the working atmosphere as "quiet, but fun", and especially likes the fact that there is no pressure to socialise, while Evan says of his employers that they are "very accommodating and understanding". Brian describes his office as "unique".

Auticon, previously known as Mindspark, is one of only a handful of companies that cater exclusively for employees who are on the autistic spectrum.

It was founded by Gray Benoist who, as the father of two autistic sons, saw few options in the workplace that could cater for their needs.

He started the firm in 2013 and it has now grown to more than 150 employees. His oldest son, also called Gray, now works in the finance team.

"Our mission is about enabling a group who have been disenfranchised. There are many segments of society that are under-utilised and people on the autistic spectrum are one of them," he said.

Peter had worked in "normal" offices before but they did not seem very normal to him. In fact he compared his previous working life to an episode of Survivors, a BBC series depicting the lives of a group of people in the aftermath of a flu outbreak that has wiped out most of the human race.

"It was all very tricky to navigate and understand. I failed to make social connections," he told the BBC.

Evan describes how at previous jobs he would "just sit and listen to a podcast by myself while I ate lunch".

"People tend to hire people who are like themselves, and autistic people are not like you, they are like themselves," said Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes, a book which looks at the evolution of autism.

"The list of things you are not supposed to do in an interview is practically a definition of autism. Don't look away, look the employer in the eye, sell yourself. All of these are very difficult for autistic people."

As well as having heightened anxiety, autistic people often struggle with social interaction.

So, at Auticon, if employees want headphones because of noise sensitivity they can have them. They also have the option to work in a dark room if they prefer, they don't have to take lunch breaks if they do not want them and if they do not feel able to communicate verbally with their team-mates, they can use messaging apps instead.

If things get too much for someone, they are entitled to "anxiety days off".

"Sensitivity to our employees' issues is our first priority," said Mr Benoist, "but that means putting the processes behind that to ensure you still deliver the highest quality to your client, which requires thought about how projects are put together and how resources are assigned."

And when it comes to the dreaded employee review, there is an emphasis on not being critical.

Mr Silberman is not convinced that segregated offices are a good idea because he thinks that both autistic employees and their more neuro-typical co-workers can learn a lot from working together.

"By learning how to manage neuro-diverse employees, employers also learn how to help every employee," he said.

"Look at Bill Gates, who definitely had autistic traits. He has grown socially and is now a great philanthropist."

There is a four-week training schedule at Auticon which decides whether candidates are suitable for longer-term employment.

Some do not make the grade, especially those who are pushed by their parents to apply for a job despite having no passion for coding, and it is important to point out that there are lots of autistic people whose interests lie elsewhere.

For those who are successful at Auticon, the team appear to be hugely supportive of each other even if they don't all go out for lunch together.

That is a lesson that other companies should take note of, thinks Mr Silberman.

"For many autistic people, if they find a place where they feel supported and feel their skills can thrive they became very devoted and loyal and don't move on. And that saves companies money because they don't have to retrain people."


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DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person. - Sara Luterman


CockneyRebel
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01 Jan 2019, 11:48 pm

That's very good news. All we need to do is hope for a future where every autistic person who wants a job will have one.


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peterainbow
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24 May 2020, 4:22 pm

hmmmm...



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26 May 2020, 3:48 am

"For many autistic people, if they find a place where they feel supported and feel their skills can thrive they became very devoted and loyal and don't move on. And that saves companies money because they don't have to retrain people."

This is an autistic trait that exists in me. I have (many) theories about what autism truly is, and since I became hyper focused on learning about autism, semi-recreationally, I have found scientific research that validated those theories.

The biggest breakthrough for my understanding of my own condition, was when I dove head first into the work of Baron-Cohen, and then read descriptions of autists by researchers in behavioral psychology.

At any rate, my brain is essentially optimised to make dynamic assessments in the midst of novel and complex situations involving adversity. An example would be participating in a group adventure where a diverse and evolving skill set defines the group, and I play my role within it, as best I can, so that we may all survive and thrive.

And so this quote resonates with me. :)