Neurodiversity can be a huge advantage for companies, yet people on the spectrum have often been marginalised. Now some firms are specifically seeking them out. Is this a crucial turning point?
Five minutes from London’s Liverpool Street station is an office that looks like any other office in the tech industry: the decor is 21st century, pristine; takeaway coffee cups are omnipresent; most people under 30 are in casualwear. Just about everyone seems to be either staring at a smartphone, tapping at a laptop, or sprinting to their next appointment.
The company I’ve come to visit is called Auticon, an award-winning IT business. As well as the staff in the office, it employs 15 IT consultants who spend most of their time working elsewhere for companies such as pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, the credit rating agency Experian, and Allianz Insurance. But there is a fascinating twist: all of the 15 are autistic, and have been given their jobs after long spells of unemployment – not out of charity or sympathy, but a deep appreciation of the attributes they bring to their work.
Auticon was founded in Germany six years ago by Dirk Müller-Remus, a former software developer who had a son diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. He was appalled by the often dismal opportunities available to autistic people, but also well aware that some people with the condition have an array of traits – the capacity to concentrate on a single task for long periods, an appreciation of systems and patterns, an amazing facility with IT – that sets them apart from the so-called “neurotypical” majority. In 2016, Auticon opened offices in London and Paris; in the UK, it now has plans to employ 100 consultants, and expand beyond London.
Ray Coyle, CEO of Auticon’s British offshoot, is a former lawyer and IT specialist who has long appreciated the benefits of employing autistic people. “Some of the most loyal, capable and dedicated employees I’ve had have been on the autism spectrum,” he says. As well as innumerable mentions of “neurotypical” – in other words, non-autistic – people, he regularly uses the term “neurodiversity”, which embodies the recognition that human brains are wired in no end of different ways. We talk about the stereotypical modern working environment, its mess of ambiguity and fuzzy logic, and how autistic people often find it impossible to navigate. And he enthusiastically makes the case for companies – particularly those in IT – employing autistic people as a matter of policy.
'In the right role and with the right support, an autistic person will significantly outperform a neurotypical person'
“We’ve got to be really careful with the language we use: we don’t want to give people the impression that all autistic people are IT geniuses, or that there are not neurotypical people who can do all of these things,” he says. “But in the right role, and with the right support, an autistic person will significantly outperform a neurotypical person doing the same job. We have lots of evidence to back that up.”
As for neurodiversity, “If you’ve got a team of people on a project, and they’re all neurotypical, and your project encounters a problem, the chances are that those 20 people will all come up with the same kind of answer. Bring in someone with a totally different cognitive process and a completely different perspective, and they’ll come up with something different. And that’s invaluable.”
For all that the people at Auticon talk with infectious enthusiasm about how some autistic people can bring their employers undreamed-of benefits, the statistics about autism and work make for grim reading. Current estimates suggest that in the UK, just over 1 in 100 people are on the autistic spectrum, which translates into a total figure of more than 700,000; in the US, the total number is put at 3.5 million. The increasing understanding of autism’s complexities means those figure may eventually go up. But according to research by the National Autistic Society (NAS), only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time work, a figure that has remained static since 2007.
Four in 10 autistic people say they have never worked at all. Around half of those who had found at least some paid employment reported workplace bullying or harassment; over a third said the support or adjustments made by their current or most recent employer were “poor” or “very poor”.
But things may be changing, albeit slowly. Thanks to everything from Steve Silberman’s bestselling book NeuroTribes to the BBC1 series The A Word, autism now has a cultural profile that would have been unheard of 20 years ago. Programmes such as BBC2’s Employable Me have explicitly dealt with the tangle of issues around autism and work. Meanwhile, 30 or so years after the concept was first grasped by psychologists and psychiatrists, the fact that autism is a spectrum condition – in other words, it manifests itself in countless different ways, and is experienced by millions of people – is starting to make its way into the public consciousness.
‘I make eye contact, I smile, I can do small talk – I know what’s expected of me’ …Cath Leggett. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Though there is still an assumption that autism is an essentially male condition, awareness of how it often has gender-related manifestations is also increasing: crudely put, many women and girls seem better at coping, but that does not mean their experience of the condition is any less real. And the idea that autism can sometimes entail strengths and talents as much as difficulties is slowly gaining ground.
There are still limits to all this: stories of breakthroughs and improvements tend to be concentrated on so-called “high-functioning” autistic people rather than those with deeper issues with communication, social interaction and sensory processing – let alone so-called “non-verbal” people. But still, with the usual caveat that autism awareness still needs to develop into genuine understanding, compared with the world of 10 years ago, the sense of progress is obvious.
James Neely is 33. With the help of one of Auticon’s job coaches, he has been working as one of the company’s IT consultants since April this year. He has a degree in physics and astrophysics from Leeds University, and a career history that speaks volumes about the often awkward fit between autism and work. He received a formal autism diagnosis earlier this year: like many autistic people, he has a range of sensory issues to do with noise and light, and works best in a quiet, often solitary environment. He tends to work wearing headphones, to assist concentration. “I listen to rock, indie sort of stuff: Muse, Garbage, Ash, Oasis, AC/DC,” he tells me. “Stuff that can be a bit loud, to drown things out. I don’t necessarily want to be listening to it all day, but the alternative is that I go mad.”
For eight years, he worked as a data analyst for a company he prefers not to name, but found his ability to function severely compromised. “The office where I first started had quite a lot of space,” he says, “but they kept moving us, and we were getting more and more crammed in; just, like, batteries of tables, without any real dividers. And about 100 people on a floor.”
The resulting stress eventually led to depression and anxiety, and meetings with an occupational therapist who suspected he was autistic. “He said, ‘How do you feel about that?’ I said, ‘Actually, it would be almost reassuring, cos it explains a lot of stuff.’”
He now looks back on his past experience and recognises enduring themes. Every annual feedback meeting included “people saying, ‘I wish James would pick up the phone more.’ I liked having things in an email because I like specifics. Talking on the phone, you might not be sure what’s required of you, but if it’s written down, you’ve got a record, and you can see things correctly.”
What about the social rituals around work: drinks on a Friday, Christmas parties? He laughs, drily. “I used to avoid those as much as possible. When I first started, I tried to go because I thought it was expected … I didn’t really know I had these problems as much then. But even when I was at uni, I always preferred going out with a couple of mates to a quiet pub. You get a bit of an anti-social label with stuff like that, but I couldn’t really cope with it.”
His first employer insisted he return full-time to the same environment but he found it too hard to cope and was let go. He then endured the limited help offered by his local jobcentre, before eventually finding out about Auticon.
Alongside two other Auticon consultants, he is now a contractor for GlaxoSmithKline. He says he can’t go into too much detail, but describes his work as “looking at lots of code, trying to map up different variables, putting stuff into visualisation software. Playing with data, just to see what we can do with it.”
Auticon – whose investors include Richard Branson – is on the leading edge of employing autistic people, but there are also big British companies who are starting to develop their own programmes. With help from the NAS, firms that have introduced work-experience schemes and internships for autistic people include BT, and the software giant SAS.
The government intelligence and security centre GCHQ has a neurodiversity programme which recruits people with conditions such as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia, and is built on the idea that – to quote its former director, Robert Hannigan – “we need all talents, and we need people who dare to think differently and be different.” There is also an elite unit in the Israeli army called Unit 9900 – where, according to US magazine The Atlantic, autistic people “act as eyes on the ground for highly sensitive operations, analyzing complex images delivered in real time from military satellites around the world”.
In the rather more workaday surroundings of a Procter & Gamble research centre in Reading, Olivia is in the middle of a paid internship. As well as insisting I don’t use her surname, she requests an email interview rather than a conversation on the phone, but her eloquent answers to my questions highlight both the strengths autistic people can bring to their work – “I’m able to problem-solve in ways that are different to other people by taking alternative routes to get to an answer, and I have a very systematic way of working,” she says – and the high walls that still stand in their way.
She was diagnosed with autism when she was 18. Then came the challenge of trying to find work. “Often, there are online assessments to be completed before being offered an interview. I find these online tests confusing as the questions are not always clearly worded and they have multiple meanings, so I don’t know what I’m being asked ... I often need verbal questions or instructions written down ... otherwise I go blank and forget what I want to say.
Popular understanding of autism still seems to miss out the fact that it defines the lives of adults as well as children
“While in work, I often struggle with the big social expectations,” she goes on. “For me, socialising ... can be very draining, even if I’m enjoying it. Being in an environment where you are always expected to socialise while working – like waitressing or being a shop assistant – is difficult for me, as I have a very clear line that separates my work life and my social life.”
Cath Leggett is a 45-year-old single mum who lives in Cardiff. She has a degree in mechanical engineering, and ended up working in flood protection, “manipulating 3D mathematical models to predict flooding”. Her work tended to involve a small team: “Five or six guys, some of who were probably undiagnosed autistic people. We all had our headphones on all day, and everyone had all the same interests as me – Doctor Who, tech, gadgets. I fitted in really well.” But a change of job meant she suddenly had to adjust to life in a huge, open-plan office: “A very social environment, more about the organisational stuff and customer service.”
At that point, she says she started to experience big problems, with “horrible overhead lights, smells like perfumes and deodorants” – and the endless complexities of office etiquette. After her daughter received an autism diagnosis, she began to realise that she too was on the spectrum – but, like many autistic women, had got used to what she calls “masking and mimicking”.
“I make eye contact, I smile, I can do small talk,” she says. “I know what’s expected. But at Christmas, for example, things would come to a head: I would be asked to get involved in secret Santas, and decorating the place. I was refusing flat-out, saying, ‘This is ridiculous – I’ve got work to do, leave me alone.’ I was offending people; being very direct and clear about things.” She was formally diagnosed two and a half years ago, and now works for the NAS as an employment consultant, often helping people who, like her, have been diagnosed later in life.
“Seven or eight times out of 10,” she says, “things will have gone past breaking point. Typically, we’re called in when a lot of complaints have been put in by the employee, and there have been severe impacts on their mental health. They might be being treated for anxiety or depression, and be unable to work.” In some cases, she says, the people she helps might have only realised they are autistic after a long spell of professional hell.
She has now started hosting courses specifically for women on the autistic spectrum, as well as making the case for employing autistic people to employers – something she talks about with a real sense of optimism. “I do a lot of conference speaking,” she says. “And I now get employers asking me, where do we find autistic people?” She says the answer often goes back to the culture around recruitment, and the importance of being clear and specific about what a job entails, as well as the understanding that the crude criteria often used to decide who gets which job will mean that some of the best people are cast aside.
Inevitably, for all Leggett’s positivity, our conversation ends with a lingering sense that there is a mountain of work still to be done. Apart from anything else, the popular understanding of autism still seems to miss out the fact that it defines the lives of adults as well as children. The consequences are not just a great deal of personal torment, but an ocean of potential that remains untapped.
Back at Auticon, Ray Coyle well knows how far there is to go. At the moment, he tells me, only one of Auticon’s 15 British IT consultants is a woman. “That’s a big area of focus and concern for us,” he says. “I think we can do better than that.
“The other thing is this. Quite a number of the consultants we have were diagnosed as adults. Diagnosis in children is getting much, much better, but the problem is, people don’t vanish when they leave school. An awful lot more needs to be done around the workplace. If you’re talking about over 1% of the population, that’s way too many people just to ignore.”