We spoke to Dirk Mueller-Remus, founder of Auticon, about the challenges that neurodiverse people face in the workplace, education, and the technology industry.
Back in 2008, Dirk Mueller-Remus, an IT professional and father from Berlin, was sat leaning forward at a support group for autistic adults, his wife in the chair next to him. Their 14-year-old son had just been diagnosed and was struggling at school despite an exceptional IQ and a gift for music. They had hoped that coming here and listening to these autistic adults who had been through the education system, would give them confidence for their child’s future. But far from a sense of relief, Dirk and his wife left the meeting with their brows furrowed. Then later at home, they started to feel angry.
Out of all the 20 people who had shared their stories, not one was employed. “I thought how can this be? What had happened? What had gone wrong?” Dirk recalled. “It was not fair. They were clearly intelligent people like my son. They had potential and ambition, and the will to work. But none of them could get a job.”
It was these revelations that prompted Dirk to investigate further. He began speaking to scientists and experts in the autism field, and he learned that rates of unemployment among neurodiverse adults were not only high across Germany but also the entire world. This wasn’t because they were lacking in talent or work ethic. Rather, the problem tended to stem from a difference in social interaction.
Dirk said: “My son struggled with communication, particularly at school, because the way he communicated was different from his peers. When you asked him something, he didn’t answer immediately. He was not willing to accept every question. He lived in his own world and he hated what he called the ‘real world’, the neurotypical world. He didn’t understand why he had to be on time, and he struggled with organisation. And that was all because he wasn’t receiving support from his teachers. He had to change schools in the end. It was a very difficult and complicated time for us.”
Dirk found that these educational barriers his son was facing were very similar to the ones faced by neurodiverse adults in the workplace. Due to a difference in communication, many could not get through stages such as the face-to-face interview or group assessment. And so in 2011, with his experience as both a parent and IT professional, Dirk decided to set up Auticon– a for-profit social enterprise that employs people on the autism spectrum as IT consultants. The company started out with just 15 employees. But with press coverage, they soon grew, turning over a million euros in their first two years of trading. Now, in 2023, Auticon is a world-renowned firm with offices in the UK, France, Italy, Switzerland, Canada and the US.
Unfortunately, despite the existence of companies like Auticon, there is a long way to go to close the autism employment gap. Just 22% of neurodiverse adults are currently employed in the UK, according to figures from the National Autistic Society. This is compared to 80% of non-disabled people. Studies also show that people with ASD face one of the lowest employment rates of all disabled groups.
Of course, it’s not just the candidates who are being affected. By not hiring people with ASD, companies are losing out on a major secret weapon that could give them a competitive edge in their sector. As Dirk explains, neurodiverse individuals think in a unique way. They are often very logical which leads to quick decision making, and they are great problem solvers. Additionally, their brains tend to process information in a way that helps them think creatively and combine unusual ideas that the neurotypical brain cannot. This brings about innovation- a golden ingredient to the success of all industries, particularly the tech sector.
Dirk said: “There are two things that make autists perfect for jobs in tech. First, they have a detail-orientated perception. That means they see small deviations that neurotypical people don’t see. With software codes, usually, it takes some time to see the fault or mistake in the code. But for autists it’s easy. They see it straight away and will tell you immediately. He continued: “To give you some idea of how perceptive they can be, I once made a PowerPoint presentation to our autistic consultants. At the end, there was a bright white screen with nothing on it. And one of the employees said to me: ‘Dirk, please switch it off.’ I said: “Why? It’s just a blank screen,” and the employee replied: “It makes me crazy because I can see every pixel on the screen.”
Another skill many autistic people have that makes them ideal for jobs in tech is quality awareness. This means they are not afraid to raise issues with a product, thus ensuring it is the best quality possible.
“Again, to give you some idea, we once gave every employee a branded backpack with the name Auticon embroidered into the front” Dirk recalled. “One employee said to me ‘thank you for the backpack, but the zipper doesn’t work and the name is not well woven‘. It’s not necessarily polite but it’s honest. I love this type of thinking and it’s important for IT consultancy and product testing.”
Over the past five years, big tech firms have started to recognise the value neurodiverse people bring in terms of creative solutions and innovative mindsets. Back in 2015, Microsoft launched the Neurodiversity Hiring Program which aims to attract talented neurodiverse candidates and provide them with support and training into full-time positions. Dirk said that this reimagination of the traditional interview process is paramount to creating equal opportunities. However, there are lots of companies out there, especially startups, who lack the knowledge to implement such initiatives or support.
In a recent national survey by FE News, 45% of respondents said their employers’ understanding of autism was poor or very poor. Meanwhile, 36% of respondents said they had experienced bullying or harassment at work. Dirk believes the best thing companies can do to create a positive and supportive work culture is to employ ‘job coaches’.
“At Auticon we have coaches who have an expert understanding of both autism and work environment,” he said. “One job coach can handle 12 autistic employees. So you don’t need many in the company to hire a lot of autistic people. Job coaches can also make sure neurodiverse employees integrate well, and coaches can work with neurotypical employees in the workforce and educate them about adapting their communication. We have a mix of both neurodiverse and neurotypical people at Auticon, and we feel that is so important because both groups offer different skills and ideas. When put together it really strengthens a team and sets a tech company up for success.”
If your autistic child or student is interested in an IT career, Dirk recommends checking out the Auticon website at auticon.com