A year later, how Microsoft’s jobs program for people with autism is working

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It has been more than a year since Microsoft announced a pilot jobs program to specifically accommodate people on the autism spectrum. In an effort to improve the company’s “neurodiversity,” the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant began targeting people living with the disorder. Apart from seeking to be more inclusive, the company said teams with employees who think differently ultimately function better and can identify with a wider range of customers.

“It’s simple, Microsoft is stronger when we expand opportunity and we have a diverse workforce that represents our customers,” Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft’s VP of Worldwide Operations, blog post at the time. “People with autism bring strengths that we need at Microsoft, each individual is different, some have amazing ability to retain information, think at a level of detail and depth or excel in math or code.”

But accommodating employees with neurodevelopmental disorders, rather than physical limitations, poses unique challenges. That’s why Microsoft launched the special pilot program for people on the spectrum in May 2015.

A year later, Fast Company today looked at how the program was faring through the experience of Blake Adickman. After struggling to hold down a job since college, the 26-year-old is now a high-paid software engineer for Microsoft with his own office and resources designed to help him thrive.

Adickman and the other employees in his cohort escaped Microsoft’s notorious hiring process, which includes a day of grueling interviews and on-the-spot puzzles.

That kind of system just doesn’t work for autistic people and it’s the reason many of them struggle to land a job, despite being intellectually qualified. People on the autism spectrum often struggle to make eye contact and get flustered by new environments and surprises. With that in mind, Microsoft invites candidates for the program to work on projects for several weeks at its Redmond, Wash., campus. Managers slowly get to know the applicants in a less-stressful environment.

That process helped Adickman land a job where other interviews had just ended in frustration and disappointment.

“I’ve been basically jumping from contract job to contract job,” he told Fast Company. “When I got invited out here, I was like, ‘Are you sure?’”

After graduating from college, Amazon flew Adickman out to interview but the meeting went poorly and he wasn’t offered a position.

Getting a foot in the door isn’t the only obstacle people with autism face in the working world. They often struggle to read social cues and their behavior can be misinterpreted by colleagues and managers. To address those issues, Microsoft assigns a mentor to each employee in its program. They provide support in a number of ways, from helping with the logistics of moving to demystifying in-office interactions.

Managers also undergo autism training so that they can be sensitive to challenges autistic people face and better understand employee behavior.

According to Fast Company, “all of those hired through the new program have performed at or above expectations. None have left Microsoft.”

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