Using Technology to Close the Autism Job Gap

This article is a part of our persevering with Fast Forward sequence, which examines technological, financial, social and cultural shifts that occur as companies evolve.

Byran Dai was 24 when he promised his mom, who handed away lower than two months later, that he would look out for his youthful brother Brandon, who’s autistic. Brandon, 15 at the time, was receiving particular training and social companies, however Mr. Dai knew that by 22, his brother would part out of the companies and training offered by the state.

“In the autism community, we call that ‘falling off the cliff,’” Mr. Dai mentioned. “It’s what a lot of families are worried about.”

Like so many entrepreneurs impressed by private expertise, Mr. Dai’s concern for his brother in the end turned the genesis for a brand new enterprise. In 2018, Mr. Dai co-founded Daivergent, a start-up that’s connecting tech firms with a pool of candidates on the autism spectrum. The firm already has 20 company purchasers and has helped 75 individuals discover work. There are about 1,100 candidates in the Daivergent pool.

Mr. Dai, a data scientist, and a high school friend Rahul Mahida, a data engineer who has an autistic cousin, realized that there was no platform to pair those on the spectrum with companies looking for candidates who could work in data and artificial intelligence. The corporate name, Daivergent, is essentially a portmanteau combining Mr. Dai’s name with neurodiversity, the term describing those individuals who have a range of neurological conditions including autism. Most of the general population is considered to be neurotypical.

Leon Campbell, 24, who is autistic, was employee No. 1 at the new company. With a computer science degree from Hunter College in New York, Mr. Campbell had technical skills but had never had a job before Daivergent hired him. He initially worked on labeling, but now focuses on quality assurance, overseeing the projects Daivergent’s remote workers complete. “I am one of the last lines of defense,” he said, before the work is sent to the corporate client.

He worried that his new job would be stressful, but because Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida were so accommodating, “those concerns quickly faded away on the first week of the job.”

Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida have taken a multifaceted approach to building their company because both the candidates and the tech companies have needs that can be complex.

At the outset, Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida reached out to organizations like Autism Speaks and AHRC New York City to find suitable candidates, whose skills are assessed through Daivergent’s readiness platform, which incorporates work experience, technology skills and socialization. Teaching the requisite skills is accomplished through video-based education. Mr. Mahida said the candidates often excel at the ability to vet thousands of images. “They do much better on these assessments than Byran and I did,” he said.

The most difficult part may be improving social and communication skills. Daivergent, Mr. Dai said, builds “shared interest groups through community forum and instant messaging tools, and also creates virtual job clubs where folks on the spectrum can swap tips and review resumes. It creates a community by us, and for us.”

Judith Williams, SAP’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said that Daivergent would be offered for customers who purchased Fieldglass, SAP’s product for managing contingent workers, so that those customers could have access to Daivergent’s work force. In addition, Ms. Williams said, SAP’s managers would have direct access to Daivergent’s work force as well.

Daivergent is also working with colleges to help autistic students gain employment. At Drexel, for example, the company is working with the university’s autism support program, to help those students obtain work to fulfill academic requirements, since the school is a co-op system that requires students to complete several internships before graduating. It’s often difficult for autistic students to obtain internships, but Daivergent is helping to bridge the gap. “While I just started working with them in April,” said Amy Edwards, who runs the autism support program, “they’ve been awesome.”

Daivergent is not the only company helping autistic workers find employment. Brenda Weitzberg was one of the first entrepreneurs to tackle this issue. More than a decade ago, motivated by her oldest son, she said she read “one sentence about a Danish company that hired those on the spectrum to do software testing.” With neither a technology nor an entrepreneurial background, she shopped her idea with professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and asked if there were a group of students interested in an “employment autism project.”

Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida know this as well and, as a result, are deliberate in scaling their efforts. That is difficult because there is demand from the tech community, eager for capable employees.

Ultimately, those in the field hope this will be the beginning of expanded employment opportunities for the neurodiverse community. As Ms. Williams of SAP said, “One really important thing we have learned — we had an idea of the types of jobs we thought people with autism would be suited for — like jobs where there is a repetitive attention to detail. But that’s stereotypical. We found that those on the spectrum can also work in H.R. and customer experience as well as engineering.”

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