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Career Success
OCT 16, 2020

Life and Work on the Autism Spectrum: The auticon Model

With Lars Backstrom, Edited by Melissa McIvor, Laura Abbott
iStock/wildpixel

The debate over the value of diversity is over. The numbers are in: diversity isn’t just a plus or a nice-to-have. It’s a necessity for a competitive workplace. One study by the Boston Consulting Group in 2018 found that innovation achieved through more diverse staff results in returns that are 19% higher. Eager to get in on this advantage, it seems like every company is scrambling to prove they’re embracing employee differences.

These days, largely due to vocal movements out of the US like Black Lives Matter, the word “diversity” brings to mind people of color, immigrants, and women. But what about diversity that cannot be seen on a person’s skin or heard in an accent? And what does it mean for companies to push past token diversity and achieve inclusion?

In 2011, German businessman Dirk Müller-Remus decided to start a social enterprise to help his autistic son, who struggled to find employment despite being talented in IT. The result was auticon, a social enterprise offering IT consulting services from staff  exclusively on the autism spectrum.

For insights into what makes auticon tick, Insights editors Mel and Laura spoke with Lars Backstrom, an IT consultant at the company. Originally from Sweden, he has lived and worked in the UK, Mexico, and the US and holds advanced degrees in geophysics and war studies. Despite this diverse experience, he long found it difficult to secure employment equipped for neurodiverse needs.

Everything changed when he found auticon.

Lars Backstrom, IT consultant at auticon | photo by auticon job coach
Adam Goldman

The Journey to the Spectrum

Mel:
You discovered that you were autistic rather late in your life and career. Can you tell us about that?

Lars:
I had struggled with alienation and depression my entire life and could never really understand why some things were so hard for me that others seemed to just take in their stride. I felt I was blocking myself from achieving my goals.

I was, of course, aware of autism, but I never suspected I was autistic. I had the same Rain Man perception of autism that the general public held for many, many years. Then my wife, who had noticed that my nonconformist, sometimes very odd behaviors were exacerbated by stress. That’s typical for people on the spectrum. I’d just gotten quite adept at masking myself.

Then she stumbled on an article about autism, and she had me do an online test. That test showed pretty clearly that I was on the spectrum. After that, in 2014, I got a formal diagnosis. I was already 50 by then.

Mel:
So was it like an “aha!” moment for you?

Lars:
Oh, yes. I think some people get depressed when they find they are on the spectrum, especially younger people. But for people who are diagnosed late in life, it’s, “Oh my God. Suddenly I understand.”

Laura:
Between the self-diagnosis and the professional diagnosis, did you feel like one was more validating than the other?

Lars:
That’s a very interesting question. I’ve seen how many people think self-diagnosis—and only self-diagnosis—is enough. But for me, it was the formal diagnosis. You do get a label, but on the other hand, you get surety: now you know. And in many places, you also get protection by law. That’s where all the change comes from.

For me, life was not really working, and getting the diagnosis helped get me back on track. For others . . . I have several friends who are undiagnosed, but they’re doing okay. Everyone has their own journey.

Former auticon Head Job Coach Antonia Leeb (left) and IT Consultant Lars Backstrom (right) at one of auticon’s offices | Photo by auticon job coach
Adam Goldman

Making the Minority the Majority

Mel:
Tell us about auticon. How did you find it, and how has your experience been working for a company committed to hiring primarily people on the autism spectrum?

Lars:
Well, it started back when I was working at a call center. It was the only job I could find. Unfortunately, it’s very common for people on the spectrum to end up being very isolated. I was facing a bullying situation, so I contacted the National Autistic Society in the UK for support. The agent was very kind and helpful. Once the situation was resolved, I didn’t think any more about it.

Then, around half a year later, I got an email from the agent. She said she was now working for auticon and suggested I apply. At first, I really wasn’t sure. My background is in geophysics. I didn’t see myself as an IT consultant. But on her recommendation, I went ahead and applied. I was invited to their assessments, and after about half a year they made a job offer.

That was in 2018, but the company has been around since 2011. As a concept, it’s proved very successful and is now worldwide. auticon has offices in Germany, France, the UK, and Australia. It also bought two preexisting companies in the US and Canada that tweaked their business models to fit auticon.

Mel:
Can you tell us about the company culture? What’s different when you walk into the auticon office?

Lars:
Well, I think at first glance it’s a normal office. But then you see that people are wearing sunglasses or noise-canceling headphones. There are specialized rooms that have subdued light. There are quiet rooms.

One of the big things with auticon is that we try to accommodate on the individual level. People on the autism spectrum have very, very different sensitivities. Hot desking, for example, is not something we do. We get our own desks.

And this might come as a surprise, but a big part of the culture is socials. People on the autism spectrum can be very social, particularly with structured activities—astronomy meetups, computer gaming, board games, and lectures… They take input from the staff and ask us what we want to do.

The big thing, though, is the auticon job coaches. We are just not hired and left to fend for ourselves. Each job coach has eight to ten consultants. It’s their job to check up on us, to talk to us, and to ask if there is anything we need.

Mel:
Are they trained to work with people with autism specifically?

Lars:
All of them have some experience with autism. Some are trained counselors. Some are even trained specialists in autism, but they also learn on the job. There’s a variety.

Laura:
I’ve heard that in many cases, the adaptations that we make for differently abled people end up benefiting people who are neurotypical. Job coaches? Quiet rooms? Subdued lighting? That would be great for so many people at work, no matter what sort of a brain you have.

Lars:
I couldn’t agree more. There is a lot of talk about accommodating neurodiversity, but when we think about reducing factors like lighting, noise, or even just creating a more accepting environment—non-tolerance of bullying and harassment—that actually benefits everyone.

The auticon officeー seemingly typical, but dimmed lighting and other accommodations are made for autistic employees. | Photo by auticon job coach Adam Goldman

Obstacles to Neurodiverse Inclusivity

Mel:
Does auticon face any unique challenges because of its neurodiverse staff?

Lars:
One challenge, of course, is that IT consulting is competitive. It’s still a relatively new business model, and it’s even more new to offer neurodiverse or autistic consultants as contractors. Clients do need to make some accommodations, but they don’t have to be that extreme. They can be very modest.

Another challenge is that even inside autism, we are very diverse. That’s why it’s called the autism spectrum. Each and every consultant has their own requests and needs. Because of that, auticon needs to find suitable clients to place us with. That is also where the job coach comes in. They help to educate both the consultant and the client.

Mel:
Diversity has been a buzz word for a few years in the business world. Do you think that things are moving in the right direction?

Lars:
I can only give my perspective, but I think the success of auticon is a sign that, on the whole, it’s moving in the right direction. When I started studying about autism six years ago and what I’m seeing now… I mean, it has changed a lot. There’s more focus on integration. And there’s an understanding that autism is not an illness. There is no cure, and neither is a cure necessary.

But there are a couple of things that need further attention, and the changes in company culture have to come from the top—from the board rooms and the CEOs.

Companies can employ the token diverse person without considering the necessary accommodations that must come with diverse staff. Part of the complication is that an adaptation for anyone in a wheelchair means ramps and elevators, but an adaptation for one autistic person may not work for another.

Mel:
What’s your advice for tackling that hurdle?

Lars:
Remembering that diverse staff are an untapped resource. Between seventy and ninety percent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed. I, myself, have struggled finding employment. So it’s not just accommodation. It’s also about gain. We tend to be vulnerable, but we’re also dedicated and skilled. We need support, but everybody needs support. I think the myth of “self-made people” is really just that—a myth. Everybody that gets anywhere has some sort of support network.

Mel:
A support network is surely a great thing to have in any company anyway.

Lars:
Absolutely.