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Why we need more quirky workers

One of my favourite bits of the 2014 movie The Imitation Game, is when Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is at his desk, furiously working on producing the computer that will break the Enigma code and save the war.

A colleague walks past. The conversation goes like this:

Alan, the boys are going to get some lunch... Alan?

Yes, says Turing.

I said, we’re going to get some lunch... Alan?

Yes, says Turing.

I said... .

It is such a wonderfully characteristic autistic-neurotypical workplace exchange. On the one side, the colleague trying to be inclusive. On the other side, the eccentric guy utterly focused on his work and responding only to the face value of the words, with no understanding of the nuanced lunch invitation behind them.

In the movie, Turing’s perceived arrogance (he knows he’s right and doesn’t hide his contempt for others), his crazy focus, and his inability to use the sort of organisational political behavioural norms that would get his boss onside, nearly gets him fired more than once.

It’s a scenario many people on the autistic spectrum - and their co-workers and managers - can relate to.

Angry neurotypicals + bemused autistic people = untenable workplace situation. Or vice versa.

This situation is a worry given that latest figures from the US (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) suggest one in 59 children (1 in 37 boys and one in 152 girls) are on the autistic spectrum.

It’s hard to stereotype autistic people, but what’s clear is there are some fairly common autistic traits: difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling; trouble understanding facial expressions, body language, or social cues; difficulty regulating emotion; and trouble keeping up a two-way conversation. In some cases autistic people might speak in a strange, flat way, or not talk at all. They might have a restricted range of activities, or do the same thing over and over again. They might go on and on about a particular topic.

That weird guy in IT everyone sniggers about could well be autistic.

Often these social differences are enough to keep people out of the workforce.

A survey of 2000 people on the spectrum carried out by the UK’s National Autistic Society found only 16 percent were in full-time paid work and another 16 percent did part-time work. This is despite the fact that an estimated 60 percent of autistic people have average or above-average intelligence, and 77 percent of those who are unemployed want to work.

Figures are hard to get in New Zealand, but the Ministry of Social Development says young autistic males are the hardest unemployed group to place in the workforce.

Take Keith, who is in his 50s and was recently diagnosed with autism. I met up with him recently in his flat in downtown Auckland. He’s one of the nicest people you can imagine - kind and gentle, hard-working, honest and generous. He’s got a passion for history and talks knowledgeably about anything from the ancient Greek wars to the Middle East conflict. It’s noticeable he doesn’t look you in the eye, and he has an odd way of speaking, which is almost, but not quite, a stutter.

Since he left school it’s been hard to get and keep jobs, Keith says. He’s worked for more than 20 companies and had long periods when he’s been out of a job.

His first position as a library assistant didn’t work out. “I wasn’t good at dealing with the public, I wasn’t good at working under pressure. I found it nerve-wracking.”

Since then he’s mostly done casual work - menial jobs, many of them in the construction industry. Actually, he enjoyed construction. The heavy lifting kept him fit, and being in work was important for him.

“I feel wrong when I’m not working. I’ve been brought up to believe working’s an honest contribution in life.”

But sometimes when Keith finished a contract with a labour hire firm he wasn’t asked back; sometimes other staff members said he was difficult. He was even fired from one job.

The problems were two-fold. First, companies expected him to be flexible - and he wasn’t. “I find unstructured work difficult. Things thrown at you that you don’t expect. For example, if I’m trying to complete a task and someone comes along and wants me to do something different, I find it difficult to adjust. It’s distressing. I wish I could be more flexible.”

Second: communication was a minefield. Keith would say or do something he thought was fine, and it got misunderstood. Imagine this happening on your typical building site: bosses and workers didn't handle it well.

“I want to get on with my co-workers, but I’m not very good at relaxing and being social. Sometimes I have trouble working out what is appropriate to say in certain situations and what people are, and are not, going to get upset about.”

He doesn’t go into details, but it’s not hard to imagine.

When the construction industry was booming, there was work for Keith. But when the GFC came, he spent a long time out of work.

“I tried for heaps of jobs and always got passed over. I was never sure what I was doing wrong. It was disheartening.”

Anka Wittenberg, diversity specialist at SAP,  says IT can be perfect for some autistic people. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Autism at Work

Anka Wittenberg is chief diversity and inclusion officer at German software company SAP. She’s passionate about getting more autistic people into the workforce - and not solely out of a humanitarian urge. She says companies are missing out. The technology industry worldwide has hundreds of thousands of unfilled positions, she says, and there are plenty of IT roles suited for people able to focus hard, do repetitive tasks, who are sticklers for compliance and who aren’t going to flit from job to job.

In New Zealand last month to launch the SAP Autism at Work programme (we are the 11th country to join), Wittenberg says getting autistic people into work needs a change of attitude from the very start of the recruitment process.

“Companies always say they are looking for people with good communications skills and who are good team players. But there are lots of roles where those skills aren’t particularly relevant.”

Autism at Work started in 2013 and in the last five years has placed 120 autistic people in jobs worldwide. The goal is to lift that to 650 people, including 30 in New Zealand.

“It’s a success story, but it’s not an easy one,” Wittenberg says. “We’ve got many bloody noses along the way.”

Just recently, for example, there was an autistic man in SAP’s German operations who would get so absorbed in his work he was staying late into the evening. German labour laws are pretty strict around a maximum eight-hour day, so Wittenberg’s team talked to him and set up a timer to remind him when to go home.

“The minute we put the timer on the table, I had our works councillor asking what were we doing. They thought we were monitoring him ... and they wanted us to stop it. You should have seen the storm we had. It went all the way to the board."

Autism NZ chief executive Dane Dougan says getting autistic people into the workforce is time-consuming, requires a lot of education, and needs a good support network - for the employee, but also for co-workers and management.

He says Autism NZ gets a frustratingly small amount of money from the Ministry of Social Development for for its programme, meaning it can only employ one employment support facilitator - and she only works part-time. Since 2015, Autism NZ has found mainstream employment for 28 people in Auckland, plus three have been placed in sheltered employment. But more funding could make a significant difference.

Hot-desking is a no-no for most autistic people, who need structure and certainty. Photo: Getty Images

Commercial reality

But it’s worth it, says Annamarie Jamieson, Stuff’s corporate social responsibility manager. Stuff has run a programme to bring deaf, autistic and people with intellectual disabilities into the Auckland-based operations since 2012.

Jamieson says the benefits for the organisation outweigh the hard work.

“It’s worked its socks off,” Jamieson says, “There’s a commercial reality to it. The lens with which you look at people changes and so the conversation with your customers changes. Plus, if you get it right you get an extremely loyal, motivated employee, and other workers feel more connected to their organisation.

“I got an email last week from someone saying they have a child with Down’s Syndrome and they are proud to work for a company which is providing employment for people like her.”

Michael Fieldhouse runs an Australasian autism employment and training programme called Dandelion at the Australasian arm of technology company DXC Technology. So far the programme has placed 70 autistic people in full-time tech jobs with various companies around Australia, and another 20 are doing internships.

He says many autistic people have a natural affinity with IT.

“It’s reliable and predictable. Unlike a human, a computer will always do something the same way.” Fieldhouse has had success placing autistic people in areas including cyber security, testing and analytics, machine language, artificial intelligence and hardware.

He notes that a 2017 report from Cybersecurity Ventures estimated there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2021.

DXC's Michael Fieldhouse says employers of autistic people may have to be obsessively clear about the rules. Photo: Nikki Mandow

On the other hand, workplaces can be super-stressful for people on the spectrum. Up to 80 percent have additional mental health concerns, Fieldhouse says, including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Coping with change is a big issue for them in an industry where adaptation and transformation are seen as de rigeur.

From the company’s perspective, dealing with a staff member who doesn’t get the workplace norms can be hard.

“We had an issue with a guy who was wandering around playing on his phone an hour into the work day and his co-workers were saying he was a nuisance. It turned out he’d finished his work in the first hour but no one had explained to him that if you finish your work you have to go back and ask for more. And that wouldn’t have been obvious to him.”

Fieldhouse says you have to be almost obsessively clear about rules, as an autistic person won’t necessarily get the unwritten cues that neurotypical people take for granted.

“How long exactly you should have a break for; how long you should use your phone for. If you are running late for work, when should you let your manager know and what should that communication look like. Like, if you are going to be five minutes late, there’s no need to send a three-page email explaining exactly what’s happening.”

Meanwhile, co-workers might need to accept behaviour that might appear odd - obsessive hand-washing, hand-flapping in stressful situations, or disappearing to a quiet room to de-stress.

And Keith? Since being diagnosed as autistic, Keith’s been working with Romy Hume, an employment support facilitator with Autism NZ, and has landed a job as a cleaner in a retirement village.

“Romy was there at my interview to speak on my behalf, and she coached me in the best ways of presenting myself and how to answer questions. She was honest with the owner about my diagnosis and the specific trouble I have with being pulled away in the middle of a task. She even came and did the work with me for a while and gave me checklists of the most important tasks to do and the best way of doing the job.

“It’s been amazing.”

Declaration of interest: I have a brother and a son on the autistic spectrum. I didn’t need to watch The Imitation Game again to get the quote at the top of the story. Sam knows the dialogue off by heart.

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