Autism: Providing potential employment across the 'spectrum'
Specialisterne aims to equip people with autism or Asperger's with the right tools for finding work in today's IT sector, as Clare Weir discovers
They're highly skilled, highly motivated and they thrive on structure and direction. Their pattern recognition, focus, and attention to detail are highly prized in many sectors.
But they still find it tough to get jobs, because they are living with conditions like autism and Asperger's Syndrome, which can sometimes affect their ability to interact with others in the workplace.
Now an initiative to help 50 people with an autism spectrum disorders (ASD) get professional jobs in the IT sector within the next five years has been launched in Belfast.
Danish organisation Specialisterne (the specialists) is leading a global movement to create 1m jobs for people with Asperger's syndrome and high functioning autism – some traits of which are prized skills in software testing and data conversion.
Specialisterne Northern Ireland is based in the Skainos Centre in east Belfast and has been supported by Invest NI through the Social Entrepreneurship Programme.
The organisation has already been in talks with several key IT firms in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the world, companies like SAP, TDC, Nokia, Deloitte, CSC, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco have already teamed up with the initiative.
The IT industry in Northern Ireland is estimated to employ 16,500 people across 700 companies, including 100 international investors and despite predictions that there will be an additional 2,300 new jobs each year in the sector in Northern Ireland until 2019, companies are still struggling to fill positions.
However, there are estimated to be over 20,500 individuals in Northern Ireland thought to be "on the spectrum".
With only 15% of adults with such conditions considered to be in full-time employment, but most willing and able to work, the team behind the Specialisterne project say that the programme will help address both the shortfall in IT positions and the employability of people with autism and Asperger's.
Sharon Didrichsen, the manager of Specialisterne in Northern Ireland, has a background in IT recruitment and said that the sector in Northern Ireland is keen to recruit the best, most talented people regardless of label.
"Since we launched a few weeks ago, we have already taken on and are working with 15 candidates and have had enquiries from many more," she said.
"There were a total of 30 companies at the launch, all leading names who are expanding and who realise that those who score highly on the diagnosis for spectrum conditions are also those who thrive in an IT or in a science, technology, engineering or maths environment.
"The initial candidates were selected by recommendation with charities we have worked with.
"We initially meet the candidates in their home surroundings to see what life is like for them and then invite them to interviews and meetings at Skainos.
"Unlike most recruiting agencies we stay connected with the company and the candidate and we are available for any help or support that either the employee or the company requires.
"The whole aim is independence so at some stage the company, like SAP has in Dublin, will say 'it's OK, we've got this' and we reduce our involvement.
"Some of the barriers to work may seem really innocuous. We worked with one gentleman who had sensory issues and was hypersensitive to touch and the feel of certain fabrics and could only operate comfortably in a tracksuit. Because he was turning up to job interviews not wearing a suit, despite his skills, he was turned down for the job.
"Since working with him he has now got a job in Microsoft and is doing really well.
"Half of our job is just listening and communicating and providing a bridge between talented people and their potential workplace and placing candidates accordingly.
"We have brilliant people with amazing skills and qualifications who just have to negotiate a few obstacles to step into the right role."
At an event to mark the recent launch of Specialisterne in Northern Ireland, delegates had to make a duck out of pieces of Lego. The task shows that there are many possible variations of ducks - which Ms Didrichsen says demonstrates that creativity can come from many diverse perspectives.
Chris Murray, who has Asperger's, represents disabled students on behalf of NUS-USI, is the first appointment for the union in Northern Ireland to represent disabled students at the University of Ulster and Queen's.
He has set up a number of support mechanisms and policies to assist students and said that the Specialisterne project is "absolutely crucial".
"More and more students are receiving diagnosis on the spectrum, more and more young people are going into higher education and more and more people are coming out with degrees and these aspects are not being tied together," he said.
"Specialisterne ties them together. The attention to detail, the logic, the focus and the analytical skills of a lot of people on the spectrum are highly valued in a lot of sectors, particularly in IT.
"During my own education, I completed two years' study, then had a placement, then went back to do my final year.
"I applied to around 50 or 60 companies, I got interviewed for around a third of those places and was always told, my CV looked great, my technical skills seemed great, but I just wasn't presenting myself well at interview.
"Specialisterne provides both the applicants and the companies really important information. It tells the candidates what questions to expect, so that they don't freeze or freak out. It is really important for people on the spectrum to know things in advance and to be able to plan ahead.
"Employers are also made aware of some of the traits to they can also tailor the recruitment process and make the workplace a bit more comfortable.
"People on the spectrum are high functioning, they like to be busy and structured and thinking, they don't want to be sitting at home claiming benefits. IT companies are crying out for people with their type of skills. Specialisterne will address both these really important issues."
The scheme has already been a big success in Dublin.
Patrick Brophy now works for quality assurance in SAP, but said Specialisterne helped him land the job.
"The project set up meetings with HR people and people were there to advise me on what to do prior to the interview, what I could bring with me to make me stand out, how to dress and what kind of questions to expect," he said.
"I had been worried about what to say but I was able to bring my laptop and show the panel projects which I had worked on before and that made a big impact.
"SAP as a company has been very supportive, for instance if I am working on X, Y and Z, there is always someone there to give me a specific task so that I do not get blocked on X and I can get the job to completion.
"I would definitely encourage anyone with autism or Asperger's or any other condition on the spectrum to get involved in Specialisterne as without it I could still be unemployed."
Specialisterne already operates in Dublin. Here are two success stories from software company SAP.
Dara McMahon dropped out of university as he was finding it hard to motivate himself and admits he was "in dire straits".
"A friend who was working as an intern for SAP told me about Specialisterne so I went along to a meeting," he said.
"I took part in a workshop where people had to pair up and it helped the leaders learn what our skills were and what we were good at.
"I have pretty good functions and don't have too many difficulties being around people. However my employability chances would have been slim to none before I heard about Specialisterne.
"Within just a few months I was working at SAP.
"The work I do is manual dispatching, so when an issue comes in from a customer I have to see who is available to handle it.
"I am also now earning how to deal with customer queries myself and I hope to learn more skills in the future, I find the work really interesting," he added.
Patrick Brophy, who works for quality assurance in SAP, was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 14 and said that his social difficulties meant he couldn’t exploit his talent for computers to the full.
“When I was a kid I found it much more difficult to get on with people. I missed certain social cues like sarcasm, which are typical in a social environment, which made it much more difficult for me to integrate with other people,” he said.
“I knew I loved computing in school, I did a four-year degree course in software systems at Dublin City University. I knew there was always going to be new technologies, there were always going to be new challenges, I know it is something that I am good at and excel in.
“However in the three years before I joined SAP, I probably sent out more than 200 job applications and only was called to about 10 interviews.
“My parents told me about Specialisterne and within about two months I’d landed a job with SAP. I think my prospects of finding a job would have been much more difficult without the project — it helped me to get the foot into the door of one of the biggest software companies in the world.”