Why Some Companies Are Trying to Hire More People on the Autism Spectrum

The majority of those with autism are unemployed, but new pilot programs at big companies, such as EY and Microsoft, are discovering unexpected benefits from having "neurodiverse" colleagues.

The New York skyline at night, with the Empire State Building lit up for World Autism Awareness Day
The Empire State Building is seen from Hoboken, New Jersey, while it is lit up in blue to mark World Autism Day in New York, April 2, 2014. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

Interest in what’s called neurodiversity is growing at American companies. This year, the accounting firm EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young) has been piloting a program to employ people with autism in order to explore the benefits of having workers of different cognitive abilities, such as greater productivity and building a more talented workforce.

According to a recent study by Drexel University, 58 percent of young adults with autism are unemployed. And yet, many of them have skills that businesses are looking for. “This program leverages the skills that people with high functioning autism often have: looking at data, dealing with mathematical concepts, attention to detail, the ability to focus over long periods of time, and looking at large bodies of information and spotting anomalies,” explains Lori Golden, EY Abilities Strategy Leader who led the pilot program. Right now, EY’s program has four employees who work as accounting-support associates.

EY recruited the candidates, and adjusted its training and onboarding processes to become more comfortable for individuals on the autism spectrum. In addition to regular training, Golden says that EY provided hands-on training during which employees in its neurodiversity program could watch work happen in real-time as part of job training. In turn, the program has also resulted in some thoughtful reflection from the company’s managers. “One thing that happened that I thought was really interesting was that, as our supervisors went through training these individuals everyday, they stopped and asked ‘Can this be improved? Are we communicating the right way?’” says Golden. What EY found was that having colleagues with autism challenged the office’s status quo, and made it easier to broach questions about whether or not communication and management strategies were effective and logical.

“It’s a relatively new thing … but I would say it’s gaining momentum,” says Rob Austin, a business school professor at Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario, of the growing interest in recruiting neurodiverse employees. “One of the things that companies are discovering is that there are benefits that they did not anticipate.”

Austin explained that the push for neurodiversity in the workplace has Danish origins. Thorkil Sonne, a Danish telecom worker, was the instigator for bringing people with autism into the professional space. Sonne’s own son has autism and he founded the company Specialisterne in 2004 with the specific aim of employing people with autism and preparing them for the workforce. Employees at Specialisterne were high-functioning autistic people who were offered jobs in the IT and technology space.

“At some point, Thorkil wasn't making enough impact. He had 75 or so people employed, but he wanted to employ a million people with autism. So he changed his model, and started trying to convince big companies to do it,” says Austin. One of these companies was SAP, a huge software company, which hired people with autism to do software testing and analytics. The company now employs over 100 people on the autism spectrum, and that program served as a case study by Austin and his colleague Gary Pisano of Harvard Business School.

Two other companies that have been taking the lead on this are HP Enterprises (via an initiative called the Dandelion program in Australia) and Microsoft. In the SAP case study, the company found employees who had advanced degrees and patents in their names, but still weren’t able to land corporate jobs. Austin says that the talent is there, but often missed because of the over-reliance on the interview process or the lack of flexibility on the part of companies. And now, the interest in these workers, which began in the tech industry, seems to be spreading to other industries and job functions as well.

Sam Briefer at his desk at EY’s Philadelphia office. (EY)

For example, Sam Briefer, an employee in EY’s neurodiversity program, was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD at the age of six. After graduating from Westchester University, he was worried about finding a job. “I began sending out 30 or so applications, and I was being called in almost every day for an interview,” says Briefer. “I turned down most of them because either the jobs were too stressful or not of my interest.” Briefer has been at EY’s Philadelphia office for over six months, and he’s optimistic about his future at the company. “I’m so happy with where I am right now …  I feel like as long as I’m continuing to be a strong team player and someone who is always ready to step up and lead anything, that will be a great asset to my team.” Golden says that the program has had a strong reception from EY employees, and the company is planning on expanding the program to other offices next year.

But Austin says that ultimately these programs have to make sense for the company’s bottom line.The pilot programs—which companies go into with little expectation—have been producing good results in terms of finding new talent and productivity gains. “Ultimately, it's not a charity thing because it’s providing far more benefit than it's costing. Every company I know that’s gone into this in a serious way has gone into it with the idea that this is going to be net benefit positive,” he says.

Golden says that one of the challenges EY encountered initially was finding the right people. But the company’s collaboration with Microsoft, SAP, AT&T, Ford, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and JP Morgan Chase—which includes sharing best practices and challenges, as well as creating a pool of appropriate candidates—has helped bridge that gap.“I’d like to think that this is a broader thing that’s happening, and I think we have some evidence for that,” says Austin. “We’re simply getting better at helping people contribute more.”