Adults and children across the autism spectrum are finding more and more acceptance in society and social consciousness, and the media has been part of the change. Thanks to campaigns and media presence of Autism Speaks, including outspoken parents like Jenny McCarthy, not to mention the countless blogs written by parents, the world is seeing what real life looks like for the autistic person. When James Copeland wrote “For the Love of Ann” in 1973, it was one of the only true life accounts of an autistic child's journey to adulthood. No matter the acclaim of the film, the lives of most people in close connection with someone with autism are very different from the relationships of “Rain Man,” no matter how heartfelt at the end.

Worldwide audiences now see Julia cope with autism on “Sesame Street,” and the character of Dr. Shaun Murphy on “The Good Doctor” has captured a more multidimensional portrait of balancing genius and social deficits while creating a meaningful life beyond the surgery suite. Education and therapy techniques have made tremendous strides in teaching the way an autistic student can learn, but what happens after degrees are earned? Very capable and eager pools of employees are passed up because the poise factor may never be displayed in the typical job interview.

Major companies are making decisions to catch up for lost time and specifically capture employees from the autistic community. Approval ratings on both sides are off the charts, as reflected in a February 11 “Sunday Morning” feature on CBS.

Rising from rejection

Christopher Pauley can never be accused of not pursuing employment with the petal to the metal. He has a roster of 600 employers who received resumes from the California Polytechnic State University graduate, with an honored computer science degree. That effort and output yielded “barely a nibble,” much fewer chances to walk through company doors.

There were definitely days when Christopher lost spunk, fearing he might be in the statistics of 80 percent unemployment for those with autism. He didn’t make the “Please give me a chance” plea often, because he didn’t want to come off as “desperate.” He wanted to prove his capabilities, and as it happens, Microsoft was looking for someone just like Chris.

Rather than the standard, seated, and stale job interview, Microsoft Accessibility Officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, works to develop “projects” in groups that run for weeks. Assignments put prospective employees in problem-solving scenarios. This approach allows supervisors to not only see thinking and skills put into action, but also allow social skills to come to the surface. Ms. Lay-Flurrie affirms that “people with disabilities are a strength, and a force of nature in this company, myself included.” She is profoundly deaf but seamlessly proficient in lip-reading and with some support from an interpreter.

Microsoft hired Chris Pauley as a software engineer in 2016, and his manager says he is constantly “thinking-out-of-the-box” and coming up with things “new to him,” that means innovation for the company.

Pauley prefers not to speak of exact numbers in salary, but he lives in a high rise apartment on his own now, and recently bought a car. He loves driving to work and feeling acceptance. The money is nice, but “I'd be happy with half as much money,” the employee declares.

Social and succeeding

German software company SAP joined 50 other companies last April for the Autism at Work summit last April. José Velasco runs the program at SAP, where it began five years ago. He was immediately amazed not just at the number of immensely qualified applicants, but that their study and skills covered the entire gamut-- from literature and history to the science and technology track. Velasco calls his involvement with this employment program “the most rewarding” of his long career.

SAP has hired 128 employees on the Autism Spectrum and has a goal of 600.

One of those employees is about to head to Germany to train and learn at SAP headquarters in Germany for a month-long span. Another employee with a very positive and productive outlook is Gloria Mendoza. Gloria is now 26, and vividly recalls her life as a child, “not very socially skilled,” and “displaying some of the challenging behaviors that a child on the autism spectrum would have.” Fortunately, Gloria’s parents invested much time, effort, and funds into speech and occupational therapy, and from some very qualified doctors, and their daughter made great strides. She earned 2 degrees from Gettysburg College, one in music, and the other in computer science.

Part of Mendoza’s five weeks of training before taking her position in Digital Business Services was honing her social skills. Now, she spends most of her day in customer service, asking questions and optimizing the client experience for her company.

A unique feature in both the Microsoft and SAP autism employee initiatives is that hired employees are not left adrift after getting their official name badges and titles. Mentors are assigned from within the company, and consider it a mutual benefit. Mentors usually have a personal connection to autism, like Chris Pauley’s mentor, who has a son with autism and feels “hope” from meeting with Chris and seeing his success.

Gloria most loves that she can use the skills she has studied while being around people who “understand who I am and how I am different” from other employees.

Not just program managers, but every employee, seems surprised by the asset that those in the autism programs have become. Besides lunch breaks, there are game nights and other social opportunities that ensure these employees feel valued as people, beyond just know how.

Gloria Mendoza adds another worthy aspect of the programs, not having “people look at me weird.” Christopher Pauley reminds that future applicants with autism should never fail to “aim high” and “shoot for the stars” since one never knows what will happen, and for many waiting, ready, and willing future prospects, this is the time to take a shot.

Bio note

I understand breaking down the walls and ceilings faced by disabled employees.

A summa cum laude education and special education graduate with a lifetime passion to teach and cerebral palsy, my first teaching job came after 400 applications and interviews. I spent 24 years teaching, and teaching future teachers. The greatest lesson any teacher can give is to let a student see the talent only he/she has to give and to never give up. The battle does bring heartbreak, but the reward lasts.