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The IT industry suffers from a lack of diversity, with white, middle-aged men dominating the sector at every level.
But many claim increasing diversity should not just be focused on encouraging more women to enter the IT industry. Firms should also be aiming to employ people with different skills, social backgrounds and those with disabilities.
Ray Coyle, UK CEO of IT consultancy Auticon, is responsible for the firm’s UK arm, and the consultancy employs only tech consultants with autism.
Coyle says a lack of diversity in firms leads to a lack of diversity in thought, which is not the best way to solve problems or increase profit.
“What you need is variety and diversity in a workforce, not for philanthropic reasons, but because it is good business,” he says.
Auticon already operates in Germany, where it employs 70 consultants who are on the autism spectrum.
The firm has now launched in the UK, and receives funding from the Virgin Group and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to employ more autistic adults.
Employing people who suffer from autism is not without its challenges. The application process can take up to four months, and types and levels of autism vary significantly.
But legislation is not one of these challenges, because although the UK’s 2010 Equality Act makes both positive and negative discrimination during hiring illegal, this does not count for those with disabilities.
“We don’t necessarily regard people with autism to be disabled and many people with autism do not regard themselves as being disabled, but the legal status is that autism is regarded as a disability, and we are therefore allowed to do this,” says Coyle.
Read more about diversity in the IT industry
Auticon has relationships with universities, autistic charities and working groups, and speaks at many events to ensure it attracts the right kind of candidate to the workplace.
“The traditional recruitment channels don’t really work for us,” says Coyle.
As with any IT position, Auticon asks that its applicants have a passion for technology.
Some of its consultants have come straight from university, and Auticon sends people on training courses and upskills them to make sure they have the appropriate career progression opportunities.
Candidates are carefully assessed and interviewed to determine their specific needs and skills.
As Auticon is responsible for supporting and training its consultants, as well as project management, its clients are more receptive to taking on autistic consultants.
Adapting the workplace
Only 15% of people with autism in the UK are in full-time employment, and 43% of autism sufferers who have worked claim to have left or lost their job because of their autism.
“There are a lot of people on the autism spectrum who are not in full-time work, and often the reason for this is that although they have great skills and are able to do fantastic work, their previous workplace has not been autism friendly,” says Coyle.
Each of Auticon’s consultants is placed with a job coach, who supports the consultant through their projects and career at the firm.
Auticon has put a lot of effort into making sure its work environment is suitable for autism sufferers. It will assess a client’s workplace when taking it on to ensure it suits the needs of the individual consultant.
Suggestions may be made, such as ensuring the consultant’s desk is away from consistent noises such as ringing phones, or placed away from strip lighting, but these suggestions vary between consultants because each autism sufferer has different needs.
Training is provided for the team the consultant will work with, both generic training around how to work with someone on the autism spectrum and training on how to work with the individual.
These training sessions and workplace changes are focused on the individual consultant working on a project, which is why project matching is so important. Finding the right consultant to do the right project is vital.
But many suggestions to client firms are simple concepts, such as clear communication, consistency and a clear understanding of what is expected of consultants and when to deliver it.
“When you take a step back and look at what we ask our clients to do, a lot of it would fall under the heading of good management,” says Coyle. “These are things we should all be doing for all of our colleagues.”
Fighting the stereotypes
People with autism are also subject to stereotyping due to their task-oriented and logic-driven behaviour, but these traits can also make those with a passion for technology ideal for an IT-driven role.
“We find there are certain characteristics that are more prevalent among autistic people than there are among non-autistic people, and those characteristics include high levels of concentration, very good error-detection abilities, cognitive pattern recognition and very good logical and mathematical abilities,” says Coyle.
The wide variety of autism itself can be a challenge for employers, even if a person with autism is the right candidate for a role.
Auticon aims to help tackle this, and Coyle says he has been surprised by the knowledge and understanding of the firm’s clients. He believes the UK tech industry is ready to tackle disability diversity head-on.