Tech industry sees new talent pool in people with autism

IT companies are reaching out to support the development of programming skills for people with autism.

Brandon Cooney-Day is one of a small team of students working with tech company Hewlett Packard Enterprise to program a humanoid robot called Dandy.

“I've always had a mind for figuring out how stuff works, especially around computers,” he told SBS.

The information technology student is now getting the chance to turn his passion into a possible career path.

It’s a paid work experience program where all participants are on the autism spectrum.

Mr Cooney-Day was diagnosed with Asperger's around the age of 10 and he’s never seen it as a drawback.

“I personally don’t mind whether I’m autistic and that,” he said. “It’s just, to me, my brain just thinks a little differently, which isn’t a bad thing in this day and age.”

The work experience program is designed to help people with autism showcase their skills to potential future employers.

"My brain just thinks a little differently, which isn’t a bad thing in this day and age.”

There’s no job interview, and differences in ability are taken into consideration during the application process.

Once on the job, specialist staff help support the participants.

Gorg Dionynopoulos is also part of the program.

“It’s hard to put into words, it’s amazing,” he said.

“We all work on the robot, we all build programs for it, it’s great.”

Mr Cooney-Day saidhe may have struggled to secure a placement with a company like Hewlett Packard Enterprise had he applied using traditional methods.

“I'd probably fail at the interview, to be honest,” he says. “I do not do good at explaining what I can do. I would rather be able to simply show, rather than just tell.”

Hewlett Packard Enterprise emerging business director Michael Fieldhouse told SBS the program is more than just a social inclusion initiative.

He said it was an attempt to re-imagine hiring practices and make company hiring more inclusive.

“We’re looking at this as a new talent pool,” he said. “We’re looking for roles, you know, finding people who can fit new roles into areas such as cyber security, data scientists and software testing.”

Mr Fieldhouse helped pioneer the program at Hewlett Packard Enterprise after realising the unique and exceptional skills many people with autism have would be a natural fit at his workplace.

Microsoft and IBM also have similar approaches to supporting people with autism who are also exceptionally skilled in computing and related fields.

Nicole Rogerson of Autism Awareness Australia said it’s a welcome development for a group of people who tend to have much higher levels of unemployment compared to the broader population.

“We know that there are huge numbers of people with autism across Australia who are unemployed at this point in time because access to the workforce has been so difficult for them,” she said.

“Whilst it’s a stereotype, it’s fairly firmed up that it plays to the strengths of individuals with autism, that they tend to have skills that are more technically based, more computer-based, more engineering based.

“There tends to be a synergy there, so IT companies are the ones who have really stepped up to realise how effective it can be to have some of these people in their workforce.

For Mr Cooney-Day, it has been a valuable experience, and recognition of his abilities.

“Just simply knowing you’ve had the opportunity to work with someone like HP is something I’d imagine would be very good on a resume,” he said.

“There are a lot of us that are brilliant in our own way. We're just a little harder to decipher.”

Once Dandy the robot is ready, he will become a teaching tool at Modbury Heights school in Adelaide.

The robot will be put to work helping young students with autism learn different life skills and potentially inspire some of them to imagine a future career.