By Marty Graham, Contributor
When neuroscientist and video game expert Leanne Chukoskie found out her nephew, now a high school senior, had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, she decided to learn all she could about the condition—and how she could help him thrive. So she immersed herself in literature, studies, medical language, and relevant organizations.
What Chukoskie learned about young adults on the autism spectrum stunned her: While many are intelligent and college-bound, after graduating from higher education more than 80 percent remain unemployed or underemployed.
“There is so much talent here and it’s all at home—it’s a massive loss for the outside world,” Chukoskie says. “These are exactly the employees you want: highly intelligent and able to focus intensely on tasks; innovative problem solvers, but also loyal and reliable—and they stay at the job for a long time.”
But how to get past the pitfalls of the hiring process and make sure employees on the spectrum are comfortable in the workplace has proven challenging. While companies as prominent as Microsoft and Dell Technologies have developed their own unique hiring processes—partnering with autism advocacy groups such as the nonPareil Institute on work-readiness programs, for example—not everyone on the spectrum has been recruited and assessed appropriately.
Chukoskie and a team of researchers at the University of California San Diego’s Power of Neurogaming (PoNG) Center are harnessing augmented reality and video games to prepare people on the spectrum for securing and succeeding in tech jobs. This past January, they landed a $2.6 million National Science Foundation grant to continue this effort.
Chukoskie’s team is working with 25 autistic recent high school grads, including some attending community college, each year for the next four years, to build tools for future cohorts and individuals. The graduates—who Chukoskie considers paid interns—work hands-on in groups of five alongside a team of coaches and coders, with the suite of tools and training the team is developing and testing. The course aims to introduce the interns to workplace behavior and procedures, while also teaching tech and gaming skills. Additionally, coaches work with the groups on their resumes and networking know-how.
Some of that training is done via augmented reality and video games developed by Chukoskie and the PoNG team. They are using sessions to perfect a virtual reality tool that simulates the social aspects of work situations to coach interns and help them avoid social gaffes. The interns also design and develop their own projects and games, and prepare a presentation to the group at the end of the internship.
“We’ve turned training into something fun where people can watch themselves progress.”
—Leanne Chukoskie, neuroscientist, educator, science communicator
Interns train on a game where, for example, if they look away from the spaceship they control with their gaze, the spaceship blows up. People with autism often struggle to maintain eye contact with coworkers, and Chukoskie’s earlier research developing and using this kind of gaze-driven game has proven to be a powerful tool.
Social cues can also be challenging for people with autism.
“We made a suite of video games to train on, thinking that it would help with social cues because those cues are so dynamic, they happen quickly and you can just miss it,” she says. “The attention circuitry in our brains is tied to the gaze circuitry, so we decided to hijack it by designing gaze-driven games. We’ve turned training into something fun where people can watch themselves progress.”
Chukoskie has already experienced success with people she worked with on a previous grant, which helped create an onboarding process that resembled an internship more so than traditional interviewing.
The Alt Interview
While Chukoskie’s team, like those at a growing number of universities, trains autistic candidates, tech and engineering firms have also been developing their own unique hiring practices. Danielle Biddick, who worked for a developmental disabilities nonprofit that supported Microsoft’s autism hiring program, was hired by Dell Technologies to develop and enhance its neurodiversity hiring.
“The interview process looks entirely different from traditional job interviews,” Biddick says. “Some people on the spectrum don’t make it past the first interview, often because they don’t make eye contact or aren’t showing enthusiasm the way an interviewer would expect them to.”
Instead, the in-person interview is replaced with a process that lasts two weeks, allowing managers and the hiring team to better get to know candidates and let their skills shine. “We don’t have actual interviews. We have them do a technical project they work on with people and we get to know them a little in an alternative interview process,” says Biddick.
For instance, the prospective hire may participate in a team project.
While the Dell projects are confidential, Chukoskie’s group has built Lego robots and given interns logic and programming problems to solve, and asked them to explain work they’ve done in a detailed presentation. All the while, they’ll be working on these projects side-by-side with the hiring team who offers consistent feedback and encouragement. There are frequent breaks and lots of questions asked and answered in the process.
After the project ends, the managers and hiring staff decide if there’s a place for the person at the company. Though some end up in programming and technical jobs, the companies also place people where their talents fit, including in data analytics, cybersecurity, IT auditing, compliance and supply chain management.
Most of the managers Biddick has worked with had already been interested in increasing the neurodiversity on their teams.
“Managers tell me that working with someone who is on the spectrum helped them become better managers, better listeners, and made them approach people and projects more thoughtfully,” she says. “They’ve told me the person might communicate a little differently, but that their technical strengths shine. I’ve heard them say things like, ‘I gave him a tool it takes months to learn and he figured it out in two weeks’.”
“Managers tell me that working with someone who is on the spectrum helped them become better managers, better listeners, and made them approach people and projects more thoughtfully.”
—Danielle Biddick, neurodiversity hiring, Dell Technologies
When a person on the spectrum is hired, Biddick connects managers for formal training by community partners on what autism is and is not. She says that a clearer understanding can both demystify stereotypes and make it easier to relate to the new employee.
Each new hire is assigned a mentor and a job coach who provide support for the individual joining the team and for the managers.
“The potential challenges are coachable and we have job coaches who support both the employee and the manager,” she says. “We can provide noise-canceling headphones if people are auditorially distracted.”
Employees can attend meetings via phone if they feel anxious or overwhelmed in large in-person or video conferencing meetings, for example. The job coach can also support managers dealing with the potential difficulties some people on the spectrum may have—struggles with planning and executing projects, and with managing time effectively, for example.
The New Hires
People on the autism spectrum often struggle with the unspoken “rules” in a corporate environment—work relationships are not the same as friendships, for instance, and the boss is treated differently than peers. Biddick coaches them on how to ask for help in an appropriate way, how to ask for feedback from a manager, and how to show you’re working on that feedback. “It’s more life coaching than job coaching,” she says.
Those unspoken rules are something that Chukoskie and her team are working on as they train the program participants for tech jobs. Because they’re often landing their first corporate job, how to behave in such a workplace can be completely new.
“People don’t have models of different kinds of relationships if they haven’t been in the workplace,” Chukoskie says. “We had one intern who became our disrupter because he was so excited to have so many people to get to know and hopefully form friendships with. We use the internship to work through some of the soft skills.”
Chukoskie says there is no pat set of best practices, though she is often asked for them.
“There’s nothing magical about this,” she says. “Meet people where they are. We all want to move to a more equitable workplace.”