"We have a clear opportunity here": IT company sees benefits of having a majority-autistic workforce

“Autism Speaks” helps people cope in pandemic

Will Collett has worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman, a carpet cleaner for the National Park Service, and at an amusement park. Opportunities for the 32-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum, have always been tough to find.

Then he found the training program at auticon, an IT consulting firm that seeks out a neurodiverse workforce, or employees with a range of neurological differences, including dyslexia, social anxiety, and those on the autism spectrum.

Of auticon's 300 employees, more than 200 are on the autism spectrum — a rare ratio for a company in the United States. Experts say the unemployment and underemployment rate for autistic people in the United States falls anywhere between 50% and 90%.

Now Collett is a QA analyst at auticon, working on finding bugs in software and on websites for clients around the world. Like many Americans, he's now working from home, which Collett says plays to his strengths as someone on the autism spectrum.

"A lot of us are a lot more introverted," said Collett. "There's always a certain point when I'm like, OK, I'm done hanging out with people. I'm going to go sit over here on my phone. I'm still having a great time, but I'm just kind of like done associating with people. And what I feel is really helpful for work from home, is that we can do just that," Collett continued. "We can do our work. We can focus on our work. And then when we need to talk to somebody — OK, let's open up a Zoom call. Let's open up a mic chat."

Auticon's employees are thriving in a remote work environment, said David Aspinall, U.S. CEO of the company.

"I think it's opening eyes to the possibilities of neurodiversity within the workplace. I think that we have a clear opportunity here," Aspinall said. "It's kind of a real-time experiment in unprecedented circumstances."

Auticon uses job coaches to help its employees grow both personally and professionally. During the pandemic, Aspinall says the job coaches are more important than ever — reaching out to employees to make sure they're getting the support they need while working from home.

"Our job coaches work directly with our clients, they educate our clients to the unique needs of our analysts," Aspinall explained. "Even things like eye contact and not to expect certain things. And then equally important, the job coach will then work with the analysts and make sure that the analysts understand the client expectations within that engagement. It really is important and it's the secret sauce that has made us so successful."

"What we're proving here, both pre, and during, and then post-COVID, is that neurodiversity in the workplace offers clear business benefits," Aspinall added.

For Collett, auticon has given him a career and a chance at life that no other employer has offered.

"It was a dream, but especially somewhere in that long line of jobs, I wasn't sure how feasible that dream was," Collett said. "This is incredible, this is the life I wanted." 

That experience can give hope to a younger generation of those on the autism spectrum.

Kristen Teodoro has been struggling to care for her 4-year-old Hudson during the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted important routines.

"It's been hard for everybody. It's been hard for Hudson, especially," Teodoro told CBS News contributor Jamie Wax. "I'm not a trained therapist. I'm not a trained teacher. And I'm trying my hardest, but he's losing that no matter which way you spin it."

Teodoro told CBS News that consistency has always been important in Hudson's development, so the pandemic has created a major unknown for her family.

According to the CDC's latest data, 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder by the time they're 8 years old. With so many families looking for help, Autism Speaks has teamed up with the Autism Certification Center to offer free online resources.

"If Hudson can be happy and, well, you know, independent to some degree, that would be all that I would need," Teodoro said. "Job wise, hygiene wise, all of these things, these are things — and obviously most parents don't even think about this stuff — those are the things that I want for him, for him to be able to be independent and also find some connections with people outside of his family. Those would be important things for me."