Companies tap into an underused but highly capable workforce
Oliver Willcox was always an excellent student. He earned an A in honors physics and a master’s in applied math from Loyola University Chicago. But when he started applying for jobs, Willcox, who has ADHD and a speech and language disorder, got nowhere. In interviews, he could be socially awkward, fidgeting nervously and not looking people in the eye.
At one bank, after Willcox had aced the data analyst test, hiring managers told him about their tradition of drinking Scotch on Fridays. But Willcox, his mother noted, is not a Scotch Friday kind of guy. And sure enough, the bank ended up rejecting him, as many other employers did, because he wasn’t a good “cultural fit.”
Such people as Willcox, 28, often have a hard time finding work, largely because they have trouble fitting in. But a movement has emerged in recent years to promote awareness of “neurodiverse” people who can be highly intelligent but are wired differently — those on the autism spectrum, or with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, dyslexia, or communication challenges.
Neurodiverse people are estimated to make up 8-10 percent of the population, many of them undiagnosed, and some of them, such as those with autism, have unique abilities to see patterns, think creatively, and focus on repetitive tasks.
The corporate world has started paying attention. Companies such as SAP, Microsoft, and Ford have started programs specifically to recruit and train autistic job applicants to do everything from graphic design to data analysis, and neurodiversity initiatives have popped up at several colleges, including Landmark College in Putney, Vt.
A number of small companies, many of them started by the parents of neurodiverse children, have made it their mission to hire from this population. And after Jill Willcox saw her bright, funny son, Oliver, struggle to find work, that’s exactly what she did.
In June of 2017, she launched Iterators, a software-testing firm housed in a tiny coworking space in Fort Point. The company has grown to nine employees, all of whom are neurodiverse in some way, Jill Willcox said.
Willcox, who had a severe concussion as a child and suffers from crippling headaches and a panic disorder, counts herself among them. So does her husband, David, an engineer at a pharmaceutical company with social anxiety who serves as Iterators’ test manager. Their daughter, Amelia, Oliver’s twin, who like her brother was born three months’ premature, is dyslexic; she runs the company’s free training program for job applicants.
One of the software testers, who is on the autism spectrum, had previously worked for 10 years collecting shopping carts at a major retail store, despite his college degree. Like the other testers, who start at $40,000 a year, he now spends his days examining websites and apps to find bugs.
And there are many bugs to be found: an app that won’t let a user log in but doesn’t say why; data that are not integrated from one page to another. And as the number of apps and digital platforms grows, so do the potential problems.
It’s laborious, often tedious work that requires scouring the same pages over and over searching for the tiniest of inconsistencies. And the people best suited for this work are often people like Willcox’s son.
“We honestly believe the best testers tend to be neurodiverse,” said Willcox, a self-described “reluctant entrepreneur” who formerly worked in health and welfare benefits. Starting a software-testing company was a way not just to help her son but to increase opportunities for an entire community.
“There are lots of people who are overlooked, and we just think that that doesn’t make sense,” she said. “The way you can become diverse in this world is to really be accepting of people in all their strengths.”
Neurodiverse employees aren’t all that different from other workers, Willcox said: Sometimes they have trouble getting to work on time; occasionally they make an inappropriate remark.
Advocates see the neurodiversity movement as a civil rights issue, similar to promoting equality in the LGBTQ community. These aren’t disorders, they argue, but a natural part of human diversity. Some have started referring to them not as disabilities but “coolabilities” — conditions that come with valuable assets.
Neurodiverse employees are 30 to 40 percent more productive than “neurotypical” workers when performing tasks such as data analysis, software testing, and compliance, provided they are supported properly, said Michael Fieldhouse, who runs a global program for neurodiverse workers at the Virginia-based IT services provider DXC Technology Co. In partnership with DXC, the Australian Defence Organisation employs cyber analysts on the autism spectrum, who are lauded for spotting patterns others can’t see, as well as for being hard workers with high retention rates.
The German business-software firm SAP, which has more than 600 employees in Massachusetts, was one of the first major corporations to embrace neurodiverse employees. With guidance from the Specialisterne Foundation in Denmark, which works to create jobs for people with autism, SAP in 2013 launched Autism at Work, a program that currently employs 150 neurodiverse people in every division of the company, from software testing to human resources to supply chain management. The program provides a “support circle” for each neurodiverse employee, including a manager with autism awareness training and mentors who help with socialization. If someone is sensitive to light or sounds, for instance, they may be placed in a more dimly lit, quiet part of the office.
One autistic employee has even helped file for two patents, said Jose Velasco, head of SAP’s Autism at Work program in the Americas.
“We see it as a business transformation,” he said. “I think that many large companies for many, many years have focused on bringing talent that looks exactly the same.”
Neurodiverse people see the world differently, which can give them a competitive advantage in certain fields, said John Elder Robison, an Amherst-based advocate and author with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, who works on neurodiversity initiatives at several colleges, including Landmark.
A dyslexic person who sees letters and words differently, for example, might be able to crack codes for the CIA, Robison said.
“Those people might be uniquely able to solve problems that stump other people,” he said, noting that tech companies in particular probably have employees who are neurodiverse, even if they haven’t been diagnosed.
At Aspiritech in Chicago, a software-testing nonprofit service provider with 100 neurodiverse employees, business is booming, said founder Brenda Weitzberg, and several clients have brought back work from overseas. Bose, an audio equipment company based in Framingham, is the company’s largest client.
Like Willcox, who sought guidance from Aspiritech, Weitzberg started her nonprofit with her adult son in mind. Weitzberg’s son, who has Asperger’s and a college degree but spent years bagging groceries, was part of what she calls a “wasted workforce.”
First impressions can be deceiving, she said. One of her employees spends part of his day hugging a teddy bear and takes daily naps in a break room, but he is the highest performer on his four-person team.
“He’s not wasting any time around the water cooler,” said Weitzberg, who is on the board of Neurowrx, a global alliance promoting employment for people on the autism spectrum. “If you really want innovation, people who think outside the box are perfect.”
For software testers, attention to detail is key. In doing work for Lobus, a New York client creating a tool that combines artists’ biographical information with art market data, the Iterators team identified when a Picasso line drawing was matched to the wrong description and raised questions about inconsistent categorizations. “They are incredibly diligent and thorough,” said Lobus cofounder Sarah Wendell Sherrill. “They’re very into it.”
On a recent day, Oliver Willcox fiddled with a pen as he talked in the Iterators office, head bent slightly. He was circumspect when asked how he liked reporting to his mother, who was sitting a few feet away.
“I have no comment,” he said, and smiled.