Using Lego Mindstorms to assess collaborative skills

Redesigning recruitment methods might help some autistic people reveal their skills
The Microsoft Autism Academy © Brian Smale for Microsoft

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Would workplaces that work for people with autism work better for everyone? Sue Warman, HR director for northern Europe at the software company SAS, thinks so.

In the UK, SAS is working with the National Autistic Society to become an autism-friendly employer. The basic approach is captured in a question to which all workers may relate: “How should we manage you so that you can do your best work?”

SAS is one of a growing number of organisations — including SAP, Microsoft and Ford — that recruit workers with autism, a neurodevelopmental condition. Though some autistic people have learning difficulties, some have high IQs and abilities to spot patterns that others miss — though they may appear socially awkward. In his book Neurotribes, Steve Silberman recounts how a Microsoft supervisor told him that his top software debuggers had autism and held “hundreds of lines of code in their head as a visual image”. Yet Silberman writes that many autistic people never benefit from their talents: “They are unemployed and struggling to get by on disability payments.”

Redesigning recruitment methods might help some autistic people reveal their skills. In the US, Microsoft runs a programme for autistic jobseekers, similar to one developed by SAP. Watched by hiring managers, applicants build Lego Mindstorms robots and are assessed on their ability to collaborate. Candidates are coached for the interview and hiring managers receive training on how to conduct an autism-friendly interview.

Neil Barnett, who runs Microsoft’s inclusive hiring programme, says that of the 24 autistic candidates hired so far, 21 had previously applied to Microsoft, but failed to get past the phone interview stage.

Recruits are given a job coach and their teammates receive training in how autism can manifest itself.

Ben, a paralegal with autism, finds interpreting social cues tricky. He and his employer, the London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, have an understanding that “if things become too much”, he can leave his desk — so far he has not needed to.

Mostly, the things that stress autistic workers — last-minute diary changes, ambiguous instructions, poorly defined roles — are things that stress everyone, says Ms Warman. “In becoming better employers of autistic people, we become better employers generally.”

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