“Autism is just a different operating system”

An international software company that hires people on the autism spectrum has plans for an office in Spain

Andrew Ring and Evan Rochte, employees at Auticon's office in Santa Monica, California.
Andrew Ring and Evan Rochte, employees at Auticon's office in Santa Monica, California.ALEXANDRA WEISS

There are some people who need complete silence to work. There are some who like to work in the dark. Yet others cannot sit still. They might seem like office space quirks, but for people on the autism spectrum, these are insurmountable obstacles that make it impossible for them to adapt to a regular workspace. But an international IT service provider called Auticon is seeking to change this by developing a formula to adapt their workplace to each individual’s abilities.

“There is a job out there for every person,” says Rebecca Beam, president of Auticon in the United States, speaking from her office in Santa Monica, California. According to Autism Works, unemployment rates for people on the autism spectrum are as high as 77%. It is called the autism spectrum because conditions can vary from mild to severe. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in every 160 children will develop some form of autism.

According to Autism Works, unemployment rates for people on the autism spectrum are as high as 77%

The company has found a niche for autism in the economy: software testing. Auticon analysts review security systems to search for software bugs and have discovered that people on the autism spectrum have particularly useful abilities to help decipher logical sequences and find errors. Auticon’s philosophy is that “autism is not a disorder, just another operating system.”

For 34-year-old Evan Rochte, who wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 28, it was always difficult to make friends and talk to strangers. He didn’t like small talk, which made his job bagging groceries at a supermarket particularly hard. “It’s hard for me to interact with people, especially if I don’t know them,” says Rochte, who went without work for years. “I didn’t have a job for a very long time. I never passed the interviews.” Five years ago, his parents saw an article on Auticon and Rochte began a course to become an IT analyst. Today, he is one of the veterans on the team.

“Evan was very shy when he arrived,” says Beam. Last year, she asked Rochte to speak at a conference in San José, which required taking a plane from Los Angeles. Not only was Rochte able to get to the airport, take a plane by himself and meet Beam in San José, but he also managed to effectively give a presentation before the board of directors. Beam views him as an example of the way that work not only allows people on the autism spectrum to feel useful and independent, but also acts as a form of therapy with long-term benefits.

A fundamental tool for Auticon is Slack, an internal messaging platform for companies. Some of the most common problems of autism are the anxiety of having to interact with people, and the way they take conversations literally, meaning they have trouble understanding irony or a joke. Interacting through Slack allows people on the autism spectrum to communicate at their own pace by choosing their words carefully without having to speak out loud or make eye contact.

To become a systems analyst with Auticon, candidates have to take a 250-hour training course. Between 10 and 12 people join every two months and approximately half are successful and move on to paid internships to later become analysts. Normally, they are people who’ve had some form of experience with computer science, and many are involved in video games.This year Auticon produced 45 analysts compared to 21 last year.

Based in Santa Monica, the company was originally called Mindspark, and it was created in 2011 by Chad Hahn and Gray Benoist. Benoist is an executive with two autistic sons and served as an inspiration for the company. Benoist’s son Gray Jr. is now working in the Santa Monica office as an accountant. He works with noise-cancelling headsets, which were bought by Auticon in 2018 in a bid to expand their services across the United States. Apart from California, the company has offices in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Italy and Canada, and have proposed opening one up in Spain.

People on the autism spectrum have particularly useful abilities to  decipher logical sequences and find errors

“When clients ask me what makes [people on the autism spectrum] good at software testing, it’s [their ability to] identify patterns, their attention to detail, their ability to do repetitive work without getting tired and their incorruptible honesty,” says Beam. “There are people here who do what we do in Excel inside their own heads,” says Isha Dash, operations director in the United States, mentioning an analyst who discovered an error in the algorithm that calculated an insurer’s premiums.

Beam says that she first sells computer services to clients, and then tells them that the work was done by people with autism, as the company does not want to be chosen out of pity. “The service needs to be good, if not we wouldn’t have a business.”

The next gap in your security system could be discovered by a person who doesn’t like to sit next to a window, or who needs absolute silence to work, or their pencils organized in a specific way – but this shouldn’t matter. Rochte, who for many years believed he wouldn't be able to work, is a firm believer in equal opportunities. “They should give opportunities to people with autism, and not jump to conclusions just because they’re autistic. Even if they act strangely, [you] have to get to know them and go beyond that.”

English version by Asia London Palomba.

At EL PAÍS, dozens of journalists are working to bring you the most rigorous information and meet their public service mission. If you want to support our journalism and enjoy unlimited access, you can do so here for €1 for the first month and €10 from the following month, and you can cancel at any time.


More information