A small technology company where all employees have autism. Look!
At first glance, it looks just like any other company in Los Angeles, with tasteful artwork hanging on the white walls and diffusers scattered around the room.
Peter describes the mood as “calm but fun,” and says he particularly likes the fact that there is no pressure to socialize while Evan says the other employees are “very understanding.” Brian describes the office as “unique.”
Before, the company was called MindSpark, until it was bought by Auticon, a German company. The original firm was created by Gray Benoist, who has two autistic children and felt there were few suitable opportunities for them in the job market.
“The two are very capable and intelligent and deserve an opportunity to show this,” he told the BBC on a recent visit to the company.
“I felt like there was a hole and the only option was for me to fill it,” says Benoist.
He started the company in 2013 and she already has over 150 employees. His eldest son, who is also called Gray, now works for the finance team.
“Our mission is to empower a group of people who do not have access to the same rights as we do. There are many segments of society that are underserved and autistic,” says Benoist.
Comfort and tranquility
Peter had already worked in other offices, but for him, they were not very “normal”. He compares these experiences to an episode in the BBC’s Survivors series that shows the lives of a group of people following a flu epidemic eradicating much of the human race.
“It was all very difficult to understand. I could not make social connections,” he told the BBC.
Evan says that in other jobs, he “just kept eating a sandwich and listening to podcasts at lunchtime.”
Autism affects about one in 100 people, according to the UK National Autism Society, but less than a quarter of them have a full-time job.
Many give up because anxiety, which is often stronger for autistic, makes a job interview a very intimidating experience.
“People often hire people who are similar to them, and autistics are not like most, they are like themselves,” says Steve Silberman, author of the book Neurotribes (Neurotribos, a free translation), a book that tells evolution of autism.
“The list of things you should not do in an interview is the definition of an autistic, practically.” Do not look sideways, look at your employer in the eyes, “all these things are very difficult for an autistic person.
Brian wanted very much to use his computing skills at work, but he felt discouraged from applying for jobs in the competitive world of technology.
“It’s a lot of pressure. You have to keep competing with other people,” he says.
That was too much for him, so he ended up having other less important jobs-he worked in a market and washedding cars. None of these jobs used his talent well and did not “get him anywhere,” as he says.
Some companies found alternatives to the traditional interview process. The German software company SAP, which also employs autistic, offers candidates the opportunity to create Lego robots instead of doing a formal interview.
So at Auticon, if an employee wants to use headphones because of the noise, this is allowed. They can also work in a dark room if they want, they do not need lunchtime and can communicate with colleagues by text message if they do not want to do it verbally.
If they become very uncomfortable, they can take “days off from anxiety.”
“Sensitivity to our employees’ issues is our priority,” says Benoist, “but this requires a whole process behind so that the company can work with quality for its customers, which requires planning for the projects and how to allocate resources”.
And when it comes to the dreaded job evaluation, they try not to be too critical.
“It’s about having good human resources principles. It’s something that other companies could easily replicate,” he added.
Silberman is not convinced that split offices are a good idea because he thinks that both autistic and people with more conventional neurological functioning can learn a lot by working together.