It’s rare that you speak to a head of a company who says one of the goals is to make the organisation irrelevant, but that’s what happens when speaking to the UK CEO of Auticon, Ray Coyle.
Auticon was established in Germany back in 2011 by Dirk Muller Remus. His son is on the autism spectrum and had faced difficulties when applying for jobs and in the workplace. This is quite emblematic for people on the spectrum: according to the National Autism Society (NAS), only 16 per cent of people with autism are in full-time employment.
But Remus knew his son had a lot to offer and so set up Auticon, an IT consultancy business whose sole consultants are people with autism.
“There’s an understanding out there, particularly in tech, that we need more neurodiversity and an enthusiasm to do something about it,” Coyle tells the Standard. “The problem is many businesses are not equipped to do it.
“That’s the idea behind Auticon, we say to businesses: we know you want to do this, but you don’t know how or where to start. Here’s a good place to start.”
Creating neurodiverse workplaces
Auticon launched in the UK in 2016, and now has 25 consultants in its London office as well as a recent expansion under its belt in Edinburgh. The key to the organisation is that it is not a charity, it turns a profit and its aim is that companies who use its consultants will experience commercial benefits too.
Lars Backstrom is a consultant for Auticon, currently working at KPMG on its Audit Data and Analytics Team. He says he finds the work challenging but rewarding.
For Backstrom, having autism means he often struggles with interpreting emotions and body language, something he found challenging in offices. This is what led him to Auticon. “I had some problems at my previous job to do with autism, and I spoke to a nice counsellor at the NAS. She left NAS to start working with Auticon and suggested I apply there,” he tells the Standard.
Creating neurodiverse workforces starts with the application and interview process. “Interviews are a test of social interaction skills, in a high-pressured, unstructured environment. It puts many people off, they find it stressful and illogical,” explains Coyle.
Auticon details the cognitive skills it looks for, such as attention to detail, sustained concentration and logical analysis in a clear manner, on its website. There’s no need for a CV, as people with autism often have gaps on their CVs which can put them off applying for new roles.
“It was a thorough and challenging application,” says Backstom. “At the same time, it was tailor-made for us on the spectrum, involving more problem-solving than bragging at interviews, which we are not very good at. The Auticon recruiters were always on hand to support and assist, it was a positive experience.”
Applicants are then invited to skills assessments to find out what their skills are and once the company understands their cognitive profile and the support they need, they are then matched up with clients and sent out to projects, such as Backstrom and KPMG.
“Attention to details and the ability to find solutions to challenging problems are key skills that we look for when recruiting,” explains Matt Campbell, KPMG’s data science team director. “Through Auticon, we have found individuals with these important skill sets who have helped us deliver for our clients.”
The two organisations worked closely together to ensure everyone feels supported, whether it’s the Auticon consultants or the management staff at KPMG, something Campbell says was incredibly helpful.
“It really helped us understand the needs of our new colleagues and also how we could work together to build a fantastic team.”
This is what Coyle means when he says if Auticon achieves its ultimate goals—of helping workplaces become neurodiverse and understand the ways they can employ people with autism—the organisation won’t be necessary anymore. Given the wider emphasis now on diversity and inclusions, people understand that neurodiversity is an important part of this, but there’s still a long way to go.
“Once people start to look at neurodiversity and see there are real benefits here for businesses, [that] this is a different type of brain, a different type of cognition, that your company really needs to tap into. People get interested very quickly,” says Coyle.
“It’s a process – we’re at the awareness stage, not the stage of widespread action yet.”
Ending the skills gap
Employing people with autism in the workplace solves another problem: the tech skills gap. Immersive Labs, which provides cyber skills training, established a specific autism-focused stream, named the Neurodiversity Cyber Academy (NCDA) to help people on the spectrum excel in cybersecurity.
This also helps to close the current cyber skills gap: recently 63 per cent of businesses said they didn’t have sufficient cybersecurity skills.
“People with autism, Asperger’s or ADHD for example often have a unique approach to problem-solving and a higher than average attention to detail which makes them incredibly well suited to the mathematical and analytical complexities embedded in cybersecurity roles,” explains Immersive’s CEO James Hadley.
The NCDA was set up last year in partnership with the NAS, with funding provided by the UK government’s cyber skills fund.
The UK’s digital minister Margot James said in a statement: “For Britain’s tech industry to prosper, we need to make sure we have a diverse workforce drawing on a range of experiences and ideas.
“Everyone should be able to get the life-changing digital skills they need, and [the funding] is helping to increase the number and diversity of those entering the cybersecurity profession, including training for neurodiverse candidates.”
Individuals come to the academy to learn all the skills they need for a career in cybersecurity. Sponsors of the academy are then able to tap into the talent pool and advertise job openings directly to candidates.
So far, it is training 200 people across England and Scotland.
“What’s different about this scheme is we’re not just preparing the autistic candidates for work, we’re also working with employers to make sure they understand autism and introduce the right support and adjustments,” says Emma Kearns, employment and enterprise manager at NAS.
“It’s important to remember every autistic person has different skills, interests and support needs and that some people aren’t able to work at all. We’ll be reviewing this model closely and, if successful, hope it can be replicated in other industries.”
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