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Autism becoming an increasing value in age of diversity hires

Autism in popular culture has come along way since the days of Rain Man.

Rather than a savant, today's perception of those on the autism spectrum seems closer to that of an adorable or quirky genius, such as Jim Parsons's portrayal of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, or Benedict Cumberbatch's depiction of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock. In other words, the changing perception of the disorder implies an intellectual benefit. But will that perception eventually penetrate the work force, so that the condition is viewed as more of an asset than liability? To some, the value of possessing a brain on the spectrum is already clear.

"Neither of my two successful ventures would have ever been created if I had a 'normal' mind,'" insists Andreas Souvaliotis, 53, founder and chief executive of Carrot Insights, which runs Carrot Rewards, a wellness-rewards platform in Toronto. Mr. Souvaliotis explained his unique ability with numbers was the impetus for his Green Rewards business 10 years ago, an ecopoints program sold to Loyalty One.

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Growing up in the days before there was an easy diagnosis for autism meant Mr. Souvaliotis was considered gifted for his math skills but at the same time "very weird" and "quirky." That led him to being a self-described "misfit" in the corporate world.

"Had I known about my limitations and opportunities earlier, I would have probably taken bigger entrepreneurial gambles at a much younger age," he said.

Today, he sees value in hiring employees on the autism spectrum, since he observed they experience lower error rates on repetitive tasks and possess a greater ability to focus on details.

These autistic benefits are backed by data. In 2014, researchers at the University of Montreal found those with autism compensate in a similar way to a blind child who may experience enhanced auditory senses. Only in this case, it results in alternate, overdeveloped brain functions.

This may explain why some companies such as Microsoft seek to tap into the community of workers on the autism spectrum.

Dean Betz has been working for the tech giant in Seattle for more than four years, currently as their executive producer for MSN News and Money. Additionally, he also works with their diversity and inclusion program since he experiences a mild form of autism and wants to support the company's initiative to recruit more on the spectrum. While Mr. Betz is reluctant to call the condition an advantage, he does see some benefits.

"People on the autism spectrum describe it as having a different operating system. Many people on the spectrum think differently, so thinking out of the box isn't merely a mental exercise, it's how they think every day and approach problems, which is a tremendous asset, especially in a company like Microsoft," he said.

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Additionally, many on the spectrum, according to Mr. Betz, have the ability to focus very deeply on an issue in a way that is a little different than people not on the spectrum.

Microsoft launched the Autism pilot program in April, 2015, and while it is currently only available in the United States, it is looking to expand. The jobs the company is seeking to fill are full-time and offer competitive salaries, but with a unique interview process. Rather than a one-shot phone interview or a several-hour, in-person interview, it's a combination of a workshop and interview to help put the candidate at ease so that she or he may demonstrate their full skill sets, explained Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring at Microsoft. To date, they have hired 24 through the program, mostly in software engineering.

Pragmatically, this fits in well with the trend that greater diversity of experience and thought will produce better business results. Diversity, in this case, refers not only to gender, race and sexual orientation but also "neurodiversity."

While not enough research has been done to show the bottom-line value "neurodiversity" brings to an organization, perhaps it's just a matter of time.

Economic benefit aside, the push to more fully integrate the 1 per cent of the population that experiences autism into the work force can reap tremendous social benefits as well.

Mr. Betz observed that as a society we have become more adept at identifying and addressing children on the spectrum, but once those children grow up and enter the workplace, they hit a wall.

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"The most important thing for me about autism acceptance is that people can be themselves and, for many on the spectrum, they have had to pretend or hide the fact so they aren't judged negatively," he said.

"Microsoft is the only place I've worked where I feel comfortable being out about it because it is not well understood. I'm fortunate that the people who I work for and some of the people I work with do understand, and that makes a big difference," Mr. Betz said.

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends

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