Health/Science
6:05 pm
Wed February 20, 2013

Young Adults With Autism Find Work In Tech

The job hunt is complicated enough for most high school and college graduates. But for the growing number of young people on the autism spectrum, it is a daunting challenge. Nationwide 90 percent of adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. Despite the obstacles these people face trying to find work, there's a natural landing place: the tech industry.

The KERA radio story.

Amelia Schabel graduated from high school five years ago. She had good grades and enrolled in community college. But it was too stressful. After less than a month she was back at home, doing nothing.

“I did go to a community college for a semester but that definitely was not for me,” she says.

She has Asperger syndrome, a disorder on the “high functioning” end of the autism spectrum. According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder. For people like Schabel, attending college and interacting socially can be tough.

“I can look someone in the eye and talk to them,” she says, “but if someone treats me in a way I don’t think I deserve to be treated, I’m not going to react well. I may lash out, I may not speak to them, I may just glare.”

Although symptoms and their severity vary widely, the majority of young adults with autism spectrum disorder won’t make it to college, and won’t get a job after they graduate. This year alone, 50,000 adolescents with autism will turn 18.

A 'Coming Tsunami'

Gary Moore is the founder of the nonPareil Institute. It’s a combination training program and software company with more than 100 students on the autism spectrum.

“It is staggering to think about the number of children that will be aging out of the school system in the next 15 years with autism that really aren’t going to have a place to go,” Moore says, referring to it as a "coming tsunami."

Moore’s son, Andrew is a junior in high school is on the spectrum. Moore used to stay up at night worrying about what would happen to Andrew after graduation.

“Although he can’t tie his shoes or buckle his belt to do a lot of things independently, he can do technology. And so I’ve been watching my son his own life playing on the computer, play videogames and I saw all this ability.”

So he paired up with Dan Selec, another parent of an autistic teen, to create nonPareil, which they see as the future for kids like theirs.

A Tech Mecca For Young Adults With Autism

NonPareil’s classrooms and labs are on Southern Methodist University’s campus in Plano. In a few short years, this place has become a sort of Mecca for young adults on the autism spectrum. More than a hundred students are enrolled or employed at the company.

When I visited graphic designers, programmers and coders were focused on a big screen with a 3D image of a barking dog eyeing a terrified cat on a tree branch.

One of the designers of the game, Mikel Crawford, jokingly described it as “Hangman, but without the lynching.”

For people like Crawford, high-tech jobs can be a perfect fit. Dr. Patricia Evans is a neurologist at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. She says people with Asperger syndrome often have an amazing ability to hyper-focus on a task.

“They may really flourish at engineering type task or computer design where their interaction with people is somewhat limited. But if you have limited social skills to interview even that can be a real barrier to getting work, much less staying in that job,” Evans says.

White-Collar Careers

There are more work opportunities for people with autism spectrum disorders than ever before, says Kathryn Parsons, chief program officer at Launchability, an agency that focuses on helping adults with cognitive impairments get jobs. It's placed employees at nearly 80 companies – from drug stores to high-tech companies to law firms.

“Any place where you have a consistent job or a somewhat repetitive job, is a great opportunity for a person with disabilities, so that’s a wide range of industries,” Parsons says.  One place Launchability has helped folks find work is Alliance Data. Jim Pierce is vice president of corporate administration at the Plano-based Fortune 500 company.

“I really do feel like this is an untapped labor market,” he says.

Alliance Data has hired nearly a dozen people with cognitive disabilities such as autism. And Pierce says this isn’t a charity case.

“We’ve got this one guy, his productivity is three times as productive as the person doing his job who did not have cognitive disabilities before him, Pierce says. “And his error rate is 2 percent. He is 98 percent accurate. He’s a phenomenal worker.”

Pierce thinks it won’t be long before more national companies realize what they’re missing. In the meantime, the software company nonPareil is trying to keep up with growing demand here in Texas. It’s looking to build more campuses in Fort Worth and other cities across the state.