Josh Arquilevich entered the job market last fall with a computer science degree and a firm grasp on the strengths he had to offer any employer. “I’m committed, creative, patient, eager to be a good teammate and collaborative,” says the 23-year-old California native whose dream job is video game designer.
But Arquilevich, who describes himself as having high-functioning autism, found the hiring process at most companies he applied to didn’t allow him to show his best self and demonstrate what he could do.
“I definitely get intimidated a lot, which I think leads to me not making it,” he says.
For many autistic adults looking for work, sometimes the search begins — and then abruptly ends — with the way a job description that calls for communication, teamwork or other soft skills they don’t feel as confident about. Other times, it’s the traditional interview process, and the spontaneous reciprocal communication and performance it demands that make it challenging for people with autism to prove their skills and strengths. And for those who are hired on as employees, some face daily roadblocks to doing their best work such as the sensory overload caused by bright lighting and loud work environments.
While no person with autism is like another, many face challenges in finding work, a problem reflected in the results of an often-cited 2015 study by researchers at Drexel University’s Autism Institute , which found nearly 42 percent of young adults on the autism spectrum never worked for pay during their early 20s. by researchers at Stony Brook University in 2018 showed that roughly two-thirds of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, despite their desire to find fulfilling work.
But that narrative is beginning to shift as more companies recruit workers through programs aimed at increasing the number of employees with autism and other neurological differences and providing them the support they need to succeed.
Specialisterne USA — a branch of a nonprofit first founded in Denmark by the father of an autistic son — has been at the center of those efforts in the United States since 2013. The organization has partnered with Bloomberg, Ernst & Young, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Salesforce, SAP and other companies to identify opportunities for people with autism to find work that leverages their strengths and provides the support they need to succeed. Specialisterne’s current goal is to facilitate 100,000 jobs for neurodiverse people in the United States by 2025.
Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that frames brain differences including autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD, social anxiety disorders, and other conditions as forms of human diversity and self-expression, rather than deficits. At the core of Specialisterne’s mission is the principle that employers have as much or more to gain from hiring neurodiverse people than the candidates do. And there’s proof of that in the real world: SAP and Hewlett-Packard have reported that teams with neurodiverse members had higher productivity and generated major innovations, including a technical fix that saved SAP $40 million, according to a Harvard Business Review article.
“In the last two years, people are knocking on our doors,” says Stephanie Diaconis, Specialisterne’s chief program officer, an entrepreneur and former teacher who is the lead facilitator for more than 20 Specialisterne programs nationally and internationally. “People don’t look at me like I have two heads when I try and explain what we do. So that’s the mile marker, that we have companies coming to us.”
The biggest barrier to employment is often traditional interviews, she says, recounting the story of a young man who suffered multiple rejections. “I’d go on interviews, I just never understood. They’d tell me ‘no,’ ” he told Diaconis. But when he went through Specialisterne’s program at Microsoft, he ended up being a top pick, she says.
“You start to get to know these folks and they’re so bright,” Diaconis says. “I’m employed and they’re not? This makes no sense.”
To help companies make their work force more neurodiverse, Specialisterne designed a process that gives hiring managers the chance to get to know job candidates and see their skills in action while giving their prospective employees time to figure out if the company’s culture is the right fit.
Specialisterne starts by helping employers develop targeted job descriptions, assess characteristics job candidates will need for potential roles in the company, and also leverages partnerships with service providers and community agencies to help recruit pools of candidates who meet those requirements.
“It’s bringing two worlds together and allowing the magic to happen,” says Diaconis, who has worked with hundreds of job candidates to help them secure meaningful careers in software engineering, development and testing, account support, system administration, cyber security, sales and other fields.
Recently, Diaconis received a message from a young man hired to work in software development by a company in Cincinnati through Specialisterne’s Autism @ Work program. “I’ve been able to move out to my own apartment and actually start getting adjusted to life on my own, something I was always scared I wouldn’t be able to do because of the lack of quality jobs for people with autism,” he told her.
After graduating from University of California, Irvine, and spending the summer teaching kids to code, Arquilevich began applying for programming jobs with no success. The main barrier for him was timed programming assessments that added stress to the experience and harmed his performance. “That timeframe did present a challenge, mainly because of the pressure,” he says. “If I’m under pressure, it’s hard for me to really think.”
Arquilevich was one of seven job candidates who entered Specialisterne’s hiring program last fall at Salesforce, a San Francisco-based customer relationship management software company, after his father spotted an ad on LinkedIn.
Rather than being asked to sit down with multiple people in one or two days to talk about his strengths, Arquilevich got to show what he could do by participating in what amounts to a four-week tryout that gives prospective employees a series of challenges to tackle — both individually and in teams — and asks them to present their solutions to hiring managers.
“There’s usually always a wow factor, because they end up doing really well presenting. One of our mottos is ‘show, don’t tell,’ ” Diaconis says.
Hiring managers receive autism awareness training before participating, including the importance of using direct language and providing written instructions. Prospective employees also visit different departments and meet some of the people they might work with, as well as tour work spaces and lunch rooms to identify needs for any environmental accommodations, Diaconis says.
“In a typical interview, if somebody is hiring somebody, they don’t necessarily understand why somebody might have the totally flattened tone or flattened look or not have eye contact or be brutally honest. So they get to know them in a different way.”
When Specialisterne first started working with companies, Diaconis says the lengthy process wasn’t always an easy sell. “I don’t want to compromise this experience for the candidates because I know what I see at the end of the four weeks, not just in the candidates but from the hiring managers.”
By the end of the process, hiring managers can see the job candidates “have great skills and we just might need to modify a few things,” Diaconis says.
Salesforce offered Arquilevich and five others a job. One of the hiring managers who was part of the hiring process on the final day of the program was in tears, because she has a child with autism. It’s something Diaconis says she has seen before in her seven years of doing this work — both from the parents who work for the companies Specialisterne partners with and from parents whose sons or daughters are hired. “We offer hope to them and their families,” she says.
After having the chance to take in the culture at Salesforce, Arquilevich decided it was a place he would be happy to wake up and go to every morning. He commutes from his home in the North Bay to the company’s San Francisco offices to work as an entry-level software engineer, doing coding and debugging work for the company’s cloud-based software. His team includes a colleague who went through the same hiring process as he did and he has enough room to work in an office that is relatively quiet, two things he needs to function well day-to-day.
Arquilevich says he would still be job searching today if it wasn’t for the support he received from Specialisterne. He also credits his job coach from a federally-funded community agency, who worked with him during his first three months at Salesforce to make sure his transition was a successful one.
“The best part of my job is the work environment. I enjoy people I work with — they’re a very good support group I can ask questions to,” he says. “I also just enjoy being able to use the stuff I’ve learned in a job I enjoy.”