When neurodiversity works

For workers on the ASD spectrum, unique jobs for unique skills

By | 4 minute read | September 25, 2019

Ingrid Weiss, IBM test specialist

Ingrid Weiss had a creative and fulfilling childhood. She fostered her creativity and intellect through activities like dance and art. She excelled at academics, eventually graduating from college with honors.

But when she sought to fulfill her next mission—a meaningful career—she struggled.

Weiss was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when she was a child.

“One day I was taken into special ed,” she said, “and given a book about, what is this autism thing? And what does it mean?”

Though autism had never stood in the way of her goals, finding gainful employment seemed an uphill battle. Because verbal and non-verbal communication can pose a challenge to individuals on the ASD spectrum, job interviews—an already high-stakes situation—can be difficult.

“I spent over half a year just saying, ‘Oh, yeah. Another failed interview. What a surprise,’” Weiss said.

In the United States, 1 in 59 children was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2018, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of young adults with autism remain underemployed, according to Autism Speaks. And nearly half of 25-year- olds with autism have never held a paying job.

That means that talented, intelligent individuals like Weiss struggle to find the right fit for fulfilling employment, or any employment at all.

“Neurodiversity is really a unique approach to thought,” said Pam Weiss. “Our daughter Ingrid has a different thought process than a neurotypical person might have. Sometimes that neurodiversity is a gift and it allows some creative problem solving. It can also be a challenge because there is some need to have a lot of consistency in things like schedule, a lot of sensitivities to the environment.”

In support of individuals like Weiss, IBM launched the IBM Ignite Autism Spectrum Disorder program in 2017. The program’s goal is to help transform spectrum talent by employing them locally and delivering their unparalleled talent directly to IBM clients.

Dyllan Rafail

“We are taking into account the great diversity that people bring,” said Christine Bartlett, Director, IBM Lansing Client Innovation Center. “That in itself is going to add value to our clients. It has definitely given people a broader look. I think they have learned to appreciate differences that people bring to the table.”

In partnership with Specialisterne, the program provides the planning, resources and support needed to successfully launch the careers of employees who are on the spectrum.

Emphasis is placed on onboarding and then supporting the employees as they navigate their new employment. New hires are given headphones to help reduce and even eliminate possibly bothersome noise.

IBM’s Watson application, Content Clarifier, is used to make potentially complex instructions more clear, straightforward and simple.

IBM also integrates its neurodivergent workforce with colleagues through regular meetings and social activities to help combat social anxieties and foster collaboration and team building.

The clients where Ignite employees have been placed give the program high marks.

Client Ahold Delhaize employs Dyllan Rafail, who self-identifies as having autism spectrum disorder.

Rafail works with Nancy Silva, QA Portfolio Manager for Retail Business Services, on testing mobile apps. Previously, Silva’s team had tested apps on various phones one at a time. Rafail examined the existing process and built a more efficient solution to test up to eight phones simultaneously.

“Rafail has been a great addition to our team,” Silva said at a recent IBM event. “We value the unique perspective he brings, and value he adds to our business.”

For Rafail, the opportunity to grow and contribute has been extremely valuable. He too, like Weiss, had struggled to find gainful employment.

“It seemed as if there was an instruction manual that everyone else had for communicating and reading other people that I did not have,” Rafail said. “I don’t know how I would be handling this a year and a half ago when I wasn’t working.”

Weiss has received similarly glowing reviews from her employer in Lansing.

Weiss approach every task with a passion for technology and out-of-the-box thinking, according to Dennis.

“I’ve had the opportunity to watch Ingrid grow into a leader, stepping up to assist in awareness training for our center and broader IBM,” Dennis added. “She is an inspiration and I feel honored to be her manager.”

IBM plans to create more than 300 new jobs globally for individuals with ASD by 2020.

Shane Fitzsimmons, IBM test specialist

For Weiss, the program has been life changing.

“It’s given me the leg up I was desperately looking for,” she said.

For Ingrid’s mother Pam, the program has also had a profound impact.

“We didn’t used to know what to do with a deaf employee or an employee in a wheelchair,” she said. “Now that we’ve adapted to those things, we can learn to adapt to neurodiversity.”

And for Ingrid, she believes that individuals with neurodiversity are a “blessing in disguise” that, thanks to their different thought processes, see things differently— and see things that are new and unexpected.

“We call that sort of thing a disruptor in the tech world,” she said. “And it’s the disruptors that make people’s lives better.”