Meet the tech firm giving autistic developers a chance

Shaking hands

There are around 700,000 people living with autism in the UK, but only 15% of them are in full-time paid employment, according to the National Autistic Society.

Stigma and misunderstanding of the disability play a major role in these statistics and companies are struggling to put in the correct support systems so autistic employees can thrive.

German IT consultancy Auticon, which has just expanded to the UK, believes those on the autistic spectrum are an asset and is giving them a chance to shine as IT consultants and specialists.

Auticon was launched in 2011 by Dirk Mller-Remus, whose son was diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger Syndrome. He was dismayed by the employment prospects on offer to some autistic adults and decided to do something about it.

Auticon currently employs 103 members of staff across Germany, France and the UK, including 78 autistic IT consultants. The remainder its administrative team is mixed autistic and non-autistic.

Fighting stereotypes

As well as providing high-quality technological solutions, the company's aim is also to aid the understanding of autism in both the public and work domain. "Our goal is to shift public perceptions of autism towards what people with autism can do well, rather than what many may find difficult," Ray Coyle, Auticon's UK CEO, tells IT Pro.

People diagnosed with the condition are known for having peculiar interests and talents, something Auticon capitalises on. In other contexts, autistic people may struggle to find jobs and fit in, but the whole enterprise has been built on their potential.

"To do this, we've built an enterprise that deals with autism confidently and realises the potential that people on the spectrum bring to the workplace," Coyle says.

"Autistic adults often have extraordinary cognitive abilities, yet many find it difficult to secure or maintain mainstream employment. At Auticon, we tap into this potential.

"Our consultants bring a unique skillset to clients' IT projects, including pattern recognition, logic, precision, sustained concentration and an ability to intuitively spot errors, to name a few.

"From a business perspective, it also makes a lot of sense to work with autistic IT consultants, both for us and our clients. We've found that our consultants are not simply good, but outclass the competition to a measurable degree."

A workplace to thrive in

To ensure their full talent is used, support is put in place for those who need it. "While many on the autism spectrum adapt well to the working environment, many others need support," Coyle says.

"Equally, many employers have the resources to devote to training and workplace adjustments, while others can benefit from the assistance that we provide," Coyle adds.

Not only do they benefit from support and understanding, but the employees are also working with some of the world's biggest IT brands and organisations. They believe that Autistic people can bring a lot to the table.

"Our consultants are highly sought after, and work on a range of IT projects for clients at major blue chip firms, including Siemens, Allianz and Infineon, as well as smaller companies," he explains.

Social enterprise approach

Auticon is a social enterprise, rather than a charity. It makes money and invests it back into the growth of the business.

"Auticon is a social enterprise but not a charity. We compete for projects on the open market like in any other company. Our employees are at least as skilled as non-autistic staff and in many areas surpass 'neurotypicals'," Coyle says.

Since launching, Auticon has doubled its growth year-on-year and moved into profit in 2015. Coyle, who joined the firm this year to help grow the UK business, believes the company's biggest success is the fact it's profitable, as it shows that its autistic workforce is succeeding.

"Moving into profit was great because it proved that Auticon's business model was sound and that it could provide sustainable employment to our consultants. It was also a fantastic reflection of the quality of our workforce," he says.

That's not to say the company hasn't faced any challenges, however. Coyle says: "One of the obstacles that we have faced is in getting across the message that although all our consultants are on the autism spectrum, their strengths lie in different areas and skills.

"We have developed a deep understanding of each of our consultant's capabilities and need to work closely with our clients to match those capabilities to a specific role within the project - so that we can deliver outstanding results."

Recruitment boost

The company's British arm has been prioritising recruitment over the last few months and has been looking for staff who have exceptional skills and talent.

"We invest a lot of time and energy into our recruitment process to ensure we find people with exceptional skills," says Coyle. "It's important to hire people who have the right technical ability, who can thrive, with our support, in a consultancy role. My focus over the coming months will be on securing projects for our consultants in IT departments across the country."

Martin Neumann, one of the firm's autistic consultants, used to run his own firm but struggled when his business partner fell ill. At Auticon, he has the correct support in place and is thriving.

"I studied informatics and civil engineering [at] postgraduate level, then worked as computer programmer and civil engineer. After a day at work, my wife would explain to me why people behaved the way they did, what their motivations were and how I could interact with them," he says.

"In my 30s, I founded a civil engineering planning and expertise company with a long-time friend as my business partner. He would handle customers and the networking part and I was in charge of the technical know-how."

"But when my business partner fell ill and had to stop working, I had to take on his tasks," Neumann continues. "This put a very heavy burden on my shoulders and I wasn't able to cope for very long. It didn't take long for me to burn out and I knew I had to find a profession that was a better match for my skills.

"I didn't want to have to worry about being autistic. I wanted to be able to focus on the work I love and am very good at. That was in 2011, the year Auticon was founded. The rest is history."

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.