15 January 2019

Africa: No Social Skills Required - Autistic Staff Help IT Firm Thrive

London — More than one in 100 people worldwide are estimated to have autism.

From a British call centre to an Alaskan satellite facility, Lars Backstrom has had a lot of jobs, but says he always felt like a hexagonal peg in a square hole - he just didn't fit in.

That changed last year when the 55-year-old Swede joined the British branch of Auticon, an IT consultancy that employs people with autism, some of whom have skills that are particularly well suited to analysing data and recognising patterns.

"They put me down in an hexagonal hole," Backstrom told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

"Spotting details and creating models, that is very enjoyable," he said. "It's a fantastic experience ... I feel both physically and mentally much, much better."

More than one in 100 people worldwide are estimated to have autism, a developmental disorder that can lead to social, communication and behavioural challenges and make it difficult to get or keep a job.

Britain's National Autistic Society (NAS) says only 16 percent of people on the autistic spectrum - who have one of a range of conditions that affect their social interaction and other behaviours - are employed.

The figures are similar in Germany, where Auticon was first established in 2011 by a father dismayed at the lack of job opportunities for his autistic son.

The social enterprise - a company set up to do good as well as making a profit - aims to provide people on the spectrum with a working environment they can thrive in.

It now employs more than 150 in France, Switzerland, Italy, Canada, Britain and the United States and is one of a growing number of businesses to recognise them as a valuable resource, said Emma Kearns, NAS's employment training manager.

"Not all autistic people are able to work. But the vast majority are desperate to find a job," Kearns said in a statement.

"With a little understanding and small adjustments to the recruitment process and workplace, autistic adults can be a real asset to all sorts of businesses."

NO CHIT CHAT

Auticon operates as a consultancy, hiring people with autism and sending them out to advise client companies - typically blue-chip organisations dealing with large stacks of data.

Recruiting is based on practical skill assessments rather than interviews, said Auticon UK's chief executive, Ray Coyle.

"An interview is a test of social interaction skills in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people ... and that is a difficult environment for many autistic people," he said.

"We ask people to tell us what they are good at and we test them on that."

Previous experience in IT is not required and the company pairs staff with a job coach that caters to their needs.

From chit-chat with colleagues to coffee breaks and work meetings, office life can cause stress and anxiety for people with autism, said coach Richmal Maybank.

The coaches talk clients through the needs of the consultants - some might be sensitive to noise or light and work best in a dark room or with noise-cancelling headphones - and hold weekly meetings with the consultant to ensure all is well.

For Backstrom, the system has proved life-changing.

Despite holding three degrees in physics, geophysics and creative writing, he had been out of full-time employment for eight years before joining Auticon in April.

In 2014 he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that has made it hard for him to interact with colleagues.

"My comfort zone is really me and a good book," said Backstrom, who is currently working with accounting firm KPMG in London.

The group is profitable and is looking to expand into Poland and Australia. Last year its staff worked on more than 200 projects for clients that ranged from German insurer Allianz to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

But finding recruits is not easy, as many potential candidates do not have the confidence to apply or have given up looking for work altogether, added Coyle.

"If people feel that society has given up on them and that they are more or less permanently excluded from the job market they are not going to be looking at job ads," he said.

Yet the company hopes its success could help bring about change, encouraging others to hire more people with autism.

"A lot of the valuable work that we do is in changing people's perspective and people views to see the positives rather than just the challenges," said Coyle.

- Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens

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