People on the autism spectrum are making a big impact in tech

Although workplaces are becoming more diverse, making it past the job interview is often a major hurdle for people with autism, despite their strong technical capabilities. Image: Shutterstock

People on the autism spectrum can make a big impact in tech, from software development to cybersecurity.

While most kids grew up using their computer to play games, Tim was busy fixing them with his father. “We used to salvage old computers and get them working again,” he says. “Since then, I have been interested in figuring out how software and hardware works.”

Tim is among the 164,000 Australians who have autism spectrum disorder, a lifelong developmental condition that is characterised by repetitive behaviour, challenges in social communication, speech and non-verbal communication, such as reading body language.

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But with these challenges comes a unique way of seeing the world and a formidable skill set, and companies are beginning to recognise this untapped potential, including tech giants IBM and DXC Technology.

“I have a sharp attention to detail and a greater level of patience when doing repetitive tasks, which are a natural fit for software testing,” says Tim, who works at Xceptional, a technology service company that employs people with autism based on their technical skills.

Skills going to waste

The unemployment rate for people on the autism spectrum is about 32%, six times higher than the rate for those without a disability. Although workplaces are becoming more diverse, making it past the job interview is often a major hurdle for people with autism, despite their strong technical capabilities.

Darren Hedley, an autism researcher at La Trobe University, says using different approaches to assess autistic candidates is a step in the right direction. Xceptional, for example, uses online questionnaires and logic-based games to recruit candidates instead of interviews.

In 2014, Hedley and his colleagues teamed up with DXC Technology to establish the DXC Dandelion Program, which matches people on the autism spectrum with tech jobs.

“They can be very conscientious and thorough workers, and they don’t like little errors,” says Darren. “If they’re unemployed or stuck in a job where they aren’t using these skills, that’s a big waste.”

Employment and education initiatives

In 2014, Hedley and his colleagues teamed up with DXC Technology to establish the DXC Dandelion Program, which matches people on the autism spectrum with tech jobs, from cybersecurity to software development. Since its launch, 105 people with autism have been employed in the Federal Government Departments of Defence, Human Services, Home Affairs, and Social Services as well as ANZ and National Australia Bank.

The initiative also offers a paid work experience program for tertiary students, which includes a three-week robotics software development course for primary schools that work with autistic children.

When it comes to starting a career in computer science, Tim says it’s important for autistic students to explore how they can grow and best use their skills. “It’s helpful to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and consider ways you can develop the skills you may have difficulty with,” he says. – Gemma Conroy

This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Code 2019.

Gemma Conroy

Author: Gemma Conroy

Gemma is a freelance journalist with a passion for making science accessible to everyone. Gemma has a degree in biology from Macquarie University and loves sharing amazing discoveries with the world.

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