Calgary company aims to help reap rewards of autism

A Calgary company is one of the first in Canada to solely hire autistic people for IT consultancy work, and is providing the resources to help support their unique skills in corporate environments in the city.

Model based on successful European approach to recruiting workers with the neurological condition

Finding a job can be challenging for anyone, but for people with autism the hunt is often much more difficult.

A new Calgary company is looking to change that by hiring only autistic people to work as specialized information technology consultants for its client businesses.

Meticulon's chief technical coach Michael D'Souza said the plan is to make the company profitable. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

Meticulon plans to have its first batch of IT consultants placed in offices across the city by early spring.

Michael D'Souza, Meticulon's chief technical coach, said companies should pay attention to the benefits of hiring autistic people.

"They can focus strongly on a particular task and identify problems the rest of us might miss," he said.

"A neurotypical person's brain can gloss over errors in repetitive tasks. An autistic person's brain won't."

What is autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a neurological condition that impacts brain development and leaves most individuals with communication problems. While some areas of development are often delayed, children with autism can often demonstrate skills beyond their years in niche knowledge areas. Some of the strengths of people with autism can include:

  • Non-verbal reasoning skills
  • Reading skills
  • Perceptual motor skills
  • Drawing skills
  • Computer interest and skills
  • Exceptional memory
  • Visual-spatial abilities
  • Musical skills

Source: Autism Canada

Meticulon is funded through Autism Calgary and also receives financial support from the Sinneave Family Foundation.

The company has a five-year plan during which it will receive financial support from the organizations, but D'Souza says the ultimate goal is to incorporate and start generating a profit. It won't be banking the cash though.

"It kind of lends itself to a new concept for business, in that we're a for-profit company but we would plow the money back into the company," said D'Souza. 

European firms find success

While the concept might sound novel, it's not entirely unique.

Similar companies have found success in Europe, including the Danish firm Specialisterne and the six-year-old Belgian company Passewerk. 

The idea is beginning to trickle into the United States and Canada, with the financial success of European counterparts serving as inspiration for fledgling North American companies.

Companies often find it challenging to hire people with autism because of the unique supports and resources they need to navigate the workplace environment, said D'Souza.

Meticulon and similar firms act as a sort of middleman, he said.  They provide the counselling and workplace support needed to prevent autistic workers from becoming overwhelmed by social quandaries — such as how react when managers break the rules or when things just don't go quite as planned. 

There is no one-size-fits-all.- Michael D'Souza, chief technical coach at Meticulon

While most companies can provide one-size-fits-all supports such as ramps or adjustable desks for workers in wheelchairs, or better-designed equipment for someone who has lost an arm, it's more difficult — and more costly — to custom-build a support network for a person with autism.

"There is no one-size-fits-all," said D'Souza. "If you've met one person with autism, you've [only] met one person with autism, because they're all different. The ability to scale support for an individual with autism is very difficult."

Intensive application process screens workers

While Meticulon is looking to help autistic people get and keep jobs, it won't take everyone who applies.

Applicants are put through a rigorous assessment process designed to identify their strengths and weaknesses, as well as areas of motivation.

The first step is an interview, which D'Souza says is meant to help the company get to know the person.

Next comes an assessment process that measures the applicant's raw aptitude to do the tasks at hand, such as testing software. 

Finally, Meticulon puts successful applicants through a multi-week training program. If that goes well, the company hopes to place them as consultants for corporate clients in early 2014.

Overall, D'Souza says the goal is to be able to compete in the consulting market by hiring out extremely specialized, loyal and attentive workers — who just happen to be autistic.

"Our whole mandate isn't that you should hire us to do social good," he said. "You should hire us because we're the best."


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