2021.10.02 12:00

Building Lego robots for job interview – helping people with autism find employment

Domantė Platūkytė, LRT.lt2021.10.02 12:00

The Danish recruitment company Specialisterne has helped find jobs for around 10,000 people with autistic spectrum disorders. Client companies are surprised to discover new talent and never regret taking a chance. Lithuania, however, still has a long way to go to enable neurodiverse people to find employment.

While the firm's head office is in Copenhagen, Specialisterne has subsidiaries in several EU countries, as well as the US, Australia, Singapore, Brazil, and Canada.

Around 2 percent of people have some kind of diagnosis within the autism spectrum, and 80 percent of them cannot find work despite being trained specialists in their respective fields.

Specialisterne partners with different companies to help find work for neurodiverse people. They have their own, unique hiring process, which can take several weeks – for example, rather than having to attend a formal job interview, candidates are asked to construct a robot with Lego blocks.

Since its founding in 2004, Specialisterne has successfully helped over 10,000 people find work.

The success story of Specialisterne inspired the founding of other similar organisations. Moreover, large international companies such as Microsoft have also designed hiring processes for neurodiverse people.

Read more: Killing gas guzzlers: what can Lithuania learn from Denmark?

Because of this, it’s hard to know the exact number of people with autistic spectrum disorders that are now employed, says Carsten Lassen, chief executive officer of Specialisterne.

Specialisterne's target is to assist a million people find employment.

Attracting more neurodiverse talent

“Eighty percent of these people are outside the labour market because they can't find their way in, because we hesitate to employ them, because we know instantly as managers that they are different,” says Lassen. “We are suspicious, afraid of things we don't know [...], so we tend to go for the safe choice as managers.”

Very few managers are rewarded for taking chances, he admits.

Neurodiverse people struggle to find work because they require more attention and a different approach when it comes to integrating them into a company, according to Lassen. Tasks, deadlines and expectations have to be communicated clearly, without any irony or sarcasm.

“If you get this combination, IT skills and being unable to get a job, then I would say there is an 80-percent chance you are talking to a person who is on the spectrum, because IT skills are in such a high demand. People really go an extra mile to employ them.”

Once you take the time to create a suitable environment for people with autistic spectrum disorders, you may find surprising new talent, Lassen says, adding that companies have reported neurodiverse employees performing 60-percent better than their neurotypical peers.

Reducing days of manual work to 20 minutes

The international software company SAP has launched the Autism at Work programme to hire neurodiverse people.

Nicolas Neumann, an employee at SAP under the programme, developed a tool that automates the posting of complex invoices, reducing two to three days of manual work to just 20 minutes.

Neumann completed it during his free time, with zero cost to the company.

“We really needed to reduce the manual effort of the accounts payable clerks, and I realised that I was able to create a logic to automate the process of these complex invoices,” Neumann said in an informational video on SAP website. “The solution brings data accuracy, time optimisation, and resource efficiency.”

All brains are wired differently, Lassen points out, and in order to treat people the same, one should manage them differently.

“A lot of them struggle to get by, a lot of them break down with stress-related symptoms. Quite often when a person goes down with stress symptoms or even gets PTSD-related symptoms, it is related with what we call neurodiverse conditions – Aspergers, ADHD, OSD or dyslexia.”

Besides professional skills, Specialisterne teaches its employees life skills, including effective communication. Moreover, the company works with other organisations, coaching managers to work more effectively alongside people with social communication differences.

“Bringing in the right skills at the right time. [...] Pedantic autistic people should not be a part of any brainstorming phase because they would ruin it, start asking questions instead of offering solutions,” says Lassen. “Don't include them in the brainstorming phase, but make sure you introduce them before it's too late, because they are really vital in making sure you haven't missed anything.”

Building Lego robots instead of job interviews

Prior to the assessment of applicants, specialists at Specialisterne conduct thorough interviews with employers about their requirements for candidates, as well as the working environment.

“It's rarely the technical skills where they flunk, it's almost always the environment that makes it difficult for neurodiverse talents to really flourish in a company setting,” says Lassen.

“We ask all those questions that you as normal managers feel hesitant to ask [...]. Are you sensitive to noise? Are you sensitive to smell? How do you feel about public transportation? But really it's so important.”

During the assessment at Specialisterne, applicants are asked to build robots from Lego blocks. It’s not the result that matters here, it is the process that allows recruiters to observe how this person works, says Lassen.

“I see people just tear down the box upside down and start looking. Others carefully open the box, start reading the manual and not really get going. I've seen people sorting all the pieces in colours,” Lassen details. “Does he or she act with other persons, ask for help, does he or she really finish? [...] I've seen people starting programming at quite an advanced level. We just observe.”

Candidate assessment takes several weeks

Candidates that pass the first stage of the assessment are then enrolled in a two-week programme, where they complete tasks based on job requirements.

At the end of the programme, Specialisterne presents the client company with a list of candidates most suited for the job.

The unique assessment process has led to a 95-percent employment success rate, according to Lassen.

“Companies say that neurodiverse employees perform 60-percent better than their neurotypical peers. Most companies say what they experience is the team coherence improves, their communication improves, team processes improve,” says Lassen. “Most employees like it when their manager is precise and don't change strategies with short notices. You improve as a manager.”

There is a high demand for IT specialists, employees with science degrees. However, “neurotypicals are fishing in another lake, these fish are not accessible” to them, Lassen says.

“So, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are outside the labour market.”

Neurodiverse employees are very determined and attentive to details, moreover, they need less break time compared to neurotypical peers, according to Lassen.

Companies fear taking chances

Many companies refuse to take chances and consider how hiring an employee within the autistic spectrum would benefit them in the long run, Specialisterne’s CEO points out.

Moreover, the assessment process is expensive. However, “such employees will probably stay at the company for a long time, so we kind of save time”, says Lassen.

“There’s a need to look into long-term goals and good sides, since this is [...] an investment into the company's future. I haven’t yet met a director or CEO that would say: 'This was a mistake, we should not have done that.'”

Statistics versus reality

Until 2015, diagnosis of autism in Lithuania could only be given to a person under 18. Because of this rule, there is little data on employment rates of neurodiverse people in Lithuania, says Barbora Suisse, board member at the Lithuanian Autism Association Lietaus Vaikai.

In 2017, there were only 17 adults with autistic spectrum disorders in Lithuania, data from the Institute of Hygiene showed.

“The situation is different than in Western countries, which are 30 years ahead of us in this area. There surely are autistic people in Lithuania, but they are invisible. They are either undiagnosed, or they are hiding it,” says Suisse. “Only children are being discussed, while autistic adults are forgotten.”

Data in other countries show that only some 20 percent of neurodiverse people are employed, and the situation in Lithuania may be even worse, she points out.

Hindered by stereotypes and job interviews

People within the autistic spectrum struggle to find work due to stereotypes widespread in society: many still believe that neurodiverse people are either geniuses or severely disabled. Neither belief is true, Suisse points out.

Regular job interviews are another obstacle for neurodiverse candidates, since success in them depends “exclusively on an individual's social skills”, according to Suisse.

“It is difficult for an autistic person to communicate, to introduce themselves, to understand informal rules. Staff selection is that first barrier that needs to be overcome.”

Specialisterne’s assessment process is successful because it focuses on the strengths, knowledge and skills that a candidate has, says Suisse.

Trying to implement the model in Lithuanian companies would require time, but it would be worth the effort, she believes.

“Companies often ask where to start. When it comes to physical disability, it’s quite clear [...] spaces need to be made accessible. But what should one do in the case of autism? The first step is to begin talking to employees about disability, neurodiversity,” says Suisse.

Awareness brings growth to a company and empowers people within the autistic spectrum to be more open.

“Developing the culture of diversity pays off many in many ways. It’s a huge change that is not yet happening in Lithuania.”

The article is part of LRT's solutions journalism project, LRT Looks for Solutions.

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