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Focusing on neurodiversity in tech, Auticon opens Utah office

People with autism often struggle to get jobs because they struggle to meet the social demands of the interview process. Auticon helps get them to work.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Aspinall speaks at the opening of Auticon's Salt Lake City office Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. The company helps people with autism find technology-based jobs.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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For many talented technology workers with autism, The job interview can be the biggest hurdle to employment. The high-stress interview process, during which applicants are expected to maintain eye contact, give a firm handshake and have all the right answers to social questions, leaves many of these workers cut off from jobs they’re well qualified for.

Auticon, a global consulting firm that recently opened a Salt Lake City office, focuses on breaking down that barrier between technologists and workplaces. Fidelity Investments and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are just two of the Utah companies and organizations that contract with Auticon to fill open positions with the understanding that the workers from Auticon likely have autism and may need accommodations.

People with autism often hide their “tells,” such as repeated rocking or hand movements or sensitivity to lights and sounds, in a practice called masking. As an employee with Auticon, these technologists no longer have to mask, said chief technology officer Mark Fister, who is autistic.

“Almost everyone is just so amazed and so relieved when I say, ‘I want you to be yourself … Never again will you have to camouflage who you really are,’” Fister said.

Globally, Auticon employs about 300 employees who are on the autism spectrum, said David Aspinall, CEO of Auticon U.S. Auticon employees work in positions relating to cyber security, software engineering, quality assurance and more.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eric Olafson speaks at the office's opening. Most employees work at the offices that contracted Auticon, but they are also welcome to work out of the small office in Salt Lake City.

Most of Auticon’s employees work at the companies that contracted with Auticon, but the company decided to open an office in Salt Lake City to be closer to the booming tech hub of Silicon Slopes.

Auticon is hiring for several positions at various skill levels.

To help these workers access these jobs, Auticon creates game-like tests to assess applicants’ technology skills rather than focus on social interactions required in a traditional interview. Applicants do talk with Auticon employees before being hired, but those conversations focus on the social skills the applicant has and what accommodations they may be needed.

But it’s not just about job recruitment, Fister said.

Auticon also pairs autistic employees with what the company calls “job coaches.” These coaches advocate for the employees to receive accommodations -- such as quiet rooms -- and help the employees and business managers understand each other’s needs, including how the business needs work done or what social cues the employee doesn’t often understand.

Along with advocating, the coaches work with employees on a more personal level. Coaches and employees meet not just to discuss objectives for the employees’ current work but also to create guides for how the employees can meet their broader career goals.

“We’re supporting not just where they are now and where they need to be,” Fister said, “but also where they really want to be.”

Diagnosed with autism

Fister received a diagnosis later in life, just two years ago, after frequent prodding from his wife. It took a few years for him to agree to be assessed.

“I’m an extrovert, I communicate and socialize for a living. That’s what I do. I can speak in front of an audience,” Fister said. “How could I be autistic?”

But getting the diagnosis helped explain some things, Fister said, and he believes many of his strengths came from being autistic. No two people with autism have all the same traits, but for Fister, his autism helps him find patterns or connections other people wouldn’t see, he said.

“Prior to understanding that I was autistic, I didn’t have a way to express that I had a unique talent that it seems that not very many people do,” Fister said.

At Auticon, Fister uses his skills to find the correct pairing for business clients and autistic employees, he said.

Knowing that a high-ranking employee at Auticon is autistic can be helpful to some employees that apply to work through the company. Scott McKell, an Auticon employee that works at Fidelity Investments, said he felt much more at ease talking with Fister knowing that he would be understood.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Auticon hired Scott McKell, who has autism, to work for Fidelity Investments.

Working with Auticon has been “consistently awesome,” McKell said. He advocated for himself at previous jobs, including asking to turn down bright lights when they bothered him, but often it felt overwhelming. With Auticon, there is someone else to help office managers understand the accommodations he needs.

“I just feel very comfortable being myself,” McKell said.

At Fidelity, McKell is able to step away from his desk to a quieter room when he gets overstimulated by the lights and noises in his office. His managers are also able to help him understand social cues in conversations -- including when another employee is joking or sarcastic -- because they recognize that he processes things differently.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

While the focus of Auticon is a social cause, it is still a for-profit business, said Aspinall, the CEO. Philanthropies and governmental programs are also needed to help people with autism, but Auticon fills a gap in the private sector.

“Central to what we believe is that the principles of business are needed in order to help resolve some of society’s challenges,” Aspinall said.

Contracting with Auticon creates an advantage for businesses, Aspinall said, by promoting neurodiversity. By helping employees with autism thrive within a business, their diverse perspectives and ways of thinking have the potential to increase efficiency and bring new innovations to the company.

“We’re turning what has previously been seen as a barrier into a performance advantage,” he said.

The businesses and organizations need to be committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, Aspinall said. A set of terms often used to describe creating welcoming environments for people of varying races or different genders, diversity, equity and inclusion also needs to include neurodiversity.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Autism advocate Temple Grandin spoke at the opening of Auticon's office in Salt Lake City Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. "There wouldn't be tech without autism," Grandin said.

A company that expects to hire a person with autism without providing some accommodations or learning about autism will not be successful, even when paired with Auticon, Aspinall said.

“You have to be a place where people feel comfortable being who they are,” Aspinall said, “because it’s only after you learn those lessons that you can pull it through to your recruitment process.”

Auticon doesn’t expect the companies to instantly know every need of every neurodivergent employee, so it guides the company along to create a workplace where an Auticon employee can do their best.

But it isn’t just Auticon employees who benefit from Auticon’s services. Sometimes, an existing employee finds enough comfort within their workplace to stop masking themselves.

“We celebrate when we get a new client, we celebrate when that same client comes back and says they want more services from us,” Aspinall said, “the biggest day of celebration we have is when somebody within a client organization now feels comfortable enough to disclose (their diagnosis).”

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Solutions in practice

Searching for work with a disability? The Utah State Office of Rehabilitation offers services to help people with disabilities find employment.

A vocational rehabilitation counselor may be able to help people with significant physical or mental impairments make it substantially difficult to find work.

For more information, visit jobs.utah.gov/usor.

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Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the scope of Auticon’s employees. The company employs about 300 individuals with autism globally.

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