Nobody seems to know exactly how many adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are unemployed or underemployed, but experts agree it’s well over 50%. For decades, the tech sector has been thought of as a quiet, dimly-lit corner of the economy where adults with ASD could find refuge – and gainful employment.

Don’t worry. You can always get a job as a programmer. You’ll be paid well and you won’t have to talk to anybody. –conventional wisdom

Contrary to the well-meaning platitudes, however, the success rate in tech for people with ASD is actually quite low.

At first, the low success rate seems counter-intuitive. Technical teams need people with a unique capacity for logic, analysis, and focus – areas where those on the spectrum often excel. Furthermore, research shows teams representing diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking outperform their more homogeneous counterparts. Neurodiversity, an umbrella term encompassing conditions like ASD and Dyslexia, can be an asset for teams charged with creative problem solving (e.g., making software). 

But there’s a catch: software development isn’t the solitary work it is rumored to be. Today’s software teams are highly collaborative and highly communicative across multiple mediums: email, chat, in person, and via development tools used for code reviews, project tracking, etc.

The level of interpersonal interaction makes it hard for people with ASD, who often struggle with social skills, to thrive in tech or even get in the door. A small but growing number of companies such as Microsoft, SAP, and New Relic have hiring and onboarding programs designed explicitly around ASD. Unfortunately, the vast majority of tech jobs are – and will continue to be – with companies that do not.

We need to bridge the gap between technical teams and people with Autism Spectrum Disorder because they have a lot to offer each other.

The first step is pushing back on the stereotypes and uncovering the real story. What do engineering managers and developers need to know about working with a neurodiverse team member? And how can parents of kids with ASD equip them with the social skills necessary to succeed in tech given that that nature of software development is changing… but Autism isn’t?

A day in the life of a techie

There’s a favorite saying in software that goes “Beware of code written by just one person.” Single-author code is infamous for being hard to understand (and therefore, maintain) and for covering only a narrow range of use cases. It’s no surprise modern programming culture revolves around collaboration.

Stroll around a typical office, and you’ll see small groups diagramming application logic on whiteboards and teams gathered for their daily stand-up meeting. Maybe even duos engaging in a practice called pair programming. In fact, more companies are pulling down the cubicle walls in favor of open floor-plans that reinforce the idea that software development is a team sport.

Developers work together on technical design, implementing the requirements, and reviewing each other’s code. They also collaborate with product managers and other stakeholders around the business on what functionality should be included. But it doesn’t stop there. Developers work with marketers and sales staff as they promote the products. And they team up with customer support staff to prioritize which bugs to fix first.

Some of these conversations happen digitally – either via email, chat, or shared documents (e.g., Google Docs, Confluence) –  while others occur in the hallways or during meetings. So both written and spoken communication skills are vital, especially when there are disagreements. Being able to explain something clearly, or knowing when to add a smiley face emoji to express humor, can be the difference between building relationships and damaging them.

In between all that, the bulk of a programmer’s day is spent programming, which is all about solving problems: “How do I get the computer to do X and Y, but only after Z?” It requires thinking through multiple use cases, accounting for users’ choices, errors, and interactions with other systems. Then there’s the internal logic of the code itself – pre-existing functions, rules, and syntax woven together into new functionality. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle on steroids, and putting it together is an exercise in persistence.

Autism Spectrum Disorder as an asset

People with little exposure to Autism could be forgiven for assuming that every person on the spectrum is a natural software developer, but that’s simply not the case. The ASD community has a popular saying: “If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.”

Still, the stereotype about ASD and technical work has some basis in fact. Tim Goldstein, a neurodiversity advocate, says that for many people on the spectrum like himself, deep concentration is almost their default state of being. “A big advantage we bring to technical work,” he says “is the ability to focus for hours and hours at a level beyond what most people can do.”

We perceive more flexibility in the world, and that allows us to put pieces together in more creative ways. –Tim Goldstien, neurodiversity advocate

And whereas some see a lack of social sophistication as a disadvantage, Goldstein sees the upside. Because people on the spectrum often miss social cues, their thinking is less influenced by external forces. “To us, there are fewer rules. We perceive more flexibility in the world, and that allows us to put pieces together in more creative ways.”

Making neurodiversity work in the workplace

Despite the unique contributions people with ASD can make, being in a position to actually make them is rare. Zak Van Voorhees, an employment specialist with Autism Society, cites many barriers to entry. “Getting into and succeeding in college is really difficult,” he says, which is effectively a disqualifying factor. As recruiters turn to automation as a way to sort through applicants quickly, people on the spectrum are increasingly weeded out by resume-scanning algorithms configured to ignore applications with no degree listed.

Even those who do land an interview (often with the help of organizations like Autism Society and Autism Speaks) often trip up on the open-ended questions managers love to ask. “Open-ended questions make people with ASD freeze up. They’re trying so hard to guess what answer you want to hear that they forget to just answer from the heart.”

Adapting the hiring process to be more inclusive of people with ASD need not entail a dramatic, all-encompassing overhaul. Van Voorhees suggests two small changes that have a big impact. First, make it a working interview that gives them a chance to demonstrate their skills or give them a project to complete at home. Second, instead of asking an open-ended question like “What’s your preferred programming language and why?,” re-phrase it to be less open – for example, “On a scale of 1-to-10, how comfortable are you with Java?”

The theme here is reducing grey areas, which is a successful strategy for working day-to-day, too.

“At the outset, invest time in spelling out the specific steps or processes required to do the job” Van Voorhees says. “After an initial ramp-up period, they’ll be able to work autonomously and generally prefer autonomy anyway.”

He recommends familiarizing them with the office culture in much the same way. “If it’s ok for them to take a 10-minute break when they need to decompress, say so. If it’s ok to come to you anytime with questions or concerns about project work or team dynamics, say that too.” Specificity reduces anxiety for everyone involved, especially the person with ASD.

Invest time initially in reducing as many grey areas as possible. –Zak Van Voorhees, employment specialist

Leslie Long, VP of Adult Services at Autism Speaks also recommends an on-the-job mentor or “buddy” to help make sure the person is organized and supported. When complemented with offsite mentoring on the social aspects of the job, their chances of long-term success increase even more.

That said, Long is quick to point out that teams may not know their new member has unique needs. “Unless a person discloses their Autism, it would be a violation of their rights to openly discuss issues or needs.” That’s why organizations like Autism Speaks and Autism Society provide Autism awareness training to businesses. “Having access to training for all employees can be the best way to prepare staff without pointing toward anyone in particular.

Meanwhile, on the home front…

Raising a child with ASD is a series of curve-balls. “It’s like boarding the plane for your dream vacation to Italy, then getting re-routed to Holland,” says Lee-Anne Bloom, who runs Oak Bloom Occupational Therapy in Oakland and works extensively with kids on the spectrum. “It’s still rewarding, but it’s not as glamorous and a lot of things just don’t go the way you’d expect.”

The good news for these parents is that there are ways they can help prepare their kids for a potential career in tech – or any field, for that matter.

At Pediatric Therapies, an outpatient clinic just outside Nashville, Doctor of Occupational Therapy Brianna Griffin starts by working with kids and their parents on self-regulation: identifying their emotions and recognizing how the feeling manifests in their bodies. “From there,” she says, “we can take it outward and identify what’s going on with others. What clues are they giving with their faces? Is their body showing they want to engage, or want to be left alone?”

Bloom takes her clients through the same progression and encourages parents to reinforce the learning at home. “Parents can help by turning their inner voice into their out-loud voice,” she says. “I encourage them to talk about their own feelings all the time, whether they’re frustrated because they’re running late or excited about having ice cream for dessert.” Parents also call out the non-verbal cues their bodies are giving: slumped shoulders or a big toothy smile.

I coach parents to talk about their own feelings all the time with their child. –Lee-Anne Bloom, pediatric occupational therapist

Understanding that people see things differently is another workplace skill kids can start building early. Griffin plays a game with her clients that parents can do at home, too. She has the child look at a picture and describe what they see. Then, she describes what she sees. Invariably, there are differences. In discussing it, they reinforce the notion that having different perspectives is normal, which lays the foundation for learning how to appropriately deal with conflict and express frustration later on.

Outward expression comes next in Griffin’s curriculum. Both in OT sessions and at home, kids start practicing by talking one-on-one with an adult they trust, then with other kids in a controlled group setting. When they’re ready, Griffen says it’s important to get kids out into the world where they can practice in a more organic context. “Put them in soccer, or swimming, or gymnastics,” she says. “These are great places for any kid to develop sportsmanship and perseverance and other social skills.”

Ultimately, the goal is for kids to become internally motivated to master these skills, even if they have to “fake it ’till they make it” along the way. In that sense, neurodiverse kids aren’t so terribly different from their neurotypical peers. The journey is just longer and, again, involves more curve-balls.

A spectrum of one-size-fits-one solutions

In a recent survey of tech workers conducted by Atlassian, 55% of respondents said their company has work to do when it comes to valuing and accommodating neurodiversity. As with most things related to diversity, it’s not a numbers game. It’s a mentality shift concerned with ensuring the industry welcomes all people.

Because ASD manifests so differently in each individual, we needn’t waste our time looking for a panacea. But the situation isn’t hopeless, either. With some small shifts in attitudes and practices, engineering managers and developers can be more inclusive of neurodiverse team members. For their part, parents of kids with ASD who show interest in technology can help them build the social skills that will equip them for a career in tech.

Above all, people on all sides need to push back on the stereotypes surrounding both Autism Spectrum Disorder and engineering. Many young people on the spectrum have no interest in pursuing a technical career. And that’s fine. But with the help of advocacy organizations and an extra dose of empathy, parents and managers can make sure those who are interested can find a place there.

Are you a techie on the spectrum? The parent of a child with ASD? (Or, really, just interested in this topic?) Share your thoughts and experiences with us by tweeting to @Atlassian. Let’s remove the stigma and work together toward #AutismAcceptance. 

 

Resources for parents and managers:

 

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For more on the state of diversity and inclusion in tech, check out our full report.

See the 2018 State of Diversity report


Also published on Medium.

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