Tapping into Unique Skills: These Companies are Benefitting from Hiring Employees on the Autism Spectrum

Avi Simon
Reading Time: 13 minutes

This article was originally posted on tech12.

Sensitive sorting, creative onboarding and close mentoring: Employing people with disabilities requires mental and occupational flexibility among organizations and start-ups. These successful companies tell us how to do it right.

“It’s only half a minute of attention and it is not much different from considering the needs of programmers. In the face of the indulgence and abundance that high-tech knows how to offer, it’s small.”

Let’s start with the bottom line because it is important and dismal: The diverse employment rates in high-tech are still low. Very. 28% women, 3.3% ultra-Orthodox and 2.3% Arabs according to the Human Capital Report of the Innovation Authority (2020). The numbers, of course, are shrinking as seniority and salaries rise. Smaller and more complex populations, people with disabilities, are almost unrepresentative.

This is not accidental. Employing people with disabilities is a complex event for the company: The process of sorting, absorbing and dialoguing with the employee should be different from the usual in the company, and the tools with which such employees are managed should be different. The companies interviewed for this article explain a little more in-depth how to do it well, hoping that other companies will learn from them.

We have identified that there are people with disabilities–specifically people on the autism spectrum–who can fully integrate into jobs in the high-tech world,” explains Tal Neuberger, director of nationally supported employment at the “All Good” group, which integrates people with disabilities into the labor market. “They know about computers, high-level English, they have a love of the field and a desire to integrate. On the other hand, some find it very difficult to integrate into the tech world because of different characteristics of employers’ requirements.”

When Neuberger talks about employers’ demands, he does not mean malice or random whims. Sometimes the nature of the work itself presents challenges: Difficulty coping with rapid changes; dealing with unforeseen problems; issues of communication and integration in the social fabric within the organization; and of course, time and inquiries from managers. Managers are sometimes required for a longer period of mentoring new employees with disabilities in order to provide them access to information and tasks and to learn to communicate differently with them if needed. 

“To solve this, we developed a model with the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, in which we create a partnership with a high-tech company, integrate a group of people on the spectrum and attach a team leader on our behalf who is on our payroll,” says Neuberger. The challenge of assimilating the employee into the organization on the team leader. “Her role is to mediate between the demands of the company and the employees. She receives the tasks from the professional manager and takes care of their execution. She’s there for a full work week, she has to study the job to supervise her – but she’s not the team’s professional manager. The success of the combination depends to a very high degree on the mediation and accompaniment of the process. Shkolu Tov has chosen an additional function in the Knesset model, which specializes in working with people on the spectrum over mentoring managers.”

Segev Fishman, software tester at eBay: “I had no difficulty finding a job, the problem was to persevere for more than a few months. The use of my skills was very limited. I had no way to progress properly, there was no employment horizon, and I was not motivated to give of myself “

The jobs in which the employees integrate successfully, he says, are entry-level–not yet complex development roles. They are in areas of data labeling, database controls, database cross-referencing and the like. This project started about two years ago and to this day three high-tech companies have opened their doors to 18 employees. eBay was the first to return to the center in Netanya for outsourced data labeling projects, which had previously gone to India and Romania.


Were there companies that refused to integrate your employees?


“I can not say that companies do not want to involve people on the spectrum, but it is difficult to find suitable projects and jobs that do not require a very broad academic background or professional experience.”


And the salary that the employees receive is equal to the salary of parallel employees?


“We emphasize very clearly that this is a normal employee-employer relationship for everything, there is no volunteering, charity or reduced wages. Everyone is employed directly by the companies and receives all social conditions. This is a low wage compared to high-tech because these are relatively simple jobs for people without education or experience, but it is above the minimum wage. A parallel worker in the same position will receive the same salary. We do not supplement the wages of the workers and do not get paid for the placement. It brings a lot of good will. “


And does it work? What is the abandonment rate?


“So far there has been a dropout of only two employees who did not match compared to 20 employees today. Compared to other projects we do in the group for integrating people with disabilities, this is a high perseverance rate, and we attribute this to the daily support of the team leader.

“What excites me are people who can work in equal companies, but because of their life circumstances they have been pushed and found themselves working much lower than their cognitive level. And as part of this project, they work at a startup or eBay, and it is a much more elevated employment world,” Concludes Neuberger.


“Everything is simple. And at the same time, not simple.”


Segev Fishman, 26, from Rehovot, is one of the examples that Neuberger refers to. After national service, he worked as a metal cleaner, then in a sorting job at Modiin’s mail sorting center. “For most of my adult years I was employed, and I had no difficulty finding a job; my problem was to persevere in it for more than a few months. These frameworks did not suit me. The use of my skills there was very limited,” he says. “I had no way to progress properly, there was no employment horizon, and I had no motivation to give of myself.”

Less than two years ago, Fishman started working on eBay tagging information, in a team made up of people on the spectrum: “From the first moment I entered eBay, I knew I wanted to stay there as long as possible and give my best. I really enjoy where I am, and I really like the role because I like to look for information. My staff and manager are great, everyone is very supportive.”


I understand that you are satisfied with the transition to high-tech?


“Everything is much more open, the offices are open and there is a games room, there is a coffee machine, there is a ping pong table.”

After a year on the job, someone on the QA team left and offered Fishman to replace him. “I immediately said yes. For two months I learned the new job and today I am testing the work of data taggers. The promotion was very fast and now I am thinking about how to move forward. Basically, I would also love to run a team someday; I think I fit in, but I need to work and get better.”

Fishman asked not to talk about the salary, but reports that he is satisfied. Even around his own limitations, he does not share: “If there is a limit I do everything to show that I can transcend it. In the end, everything is simple and at the same time not simple.”


“It is no different from the name of each employee”


“Admittedly, I was privileged to be the first in the military to integrate people on the spectrum,” says Avi Simon, co-founder and CTO at startup retrain.ai. Until two years ago, he served in the IDF with the rank of colonel in the technology units of the intelligence corps. One of his achievements was the establishment of the “See Far” program in 2011. “We opened a collection of professions in the intelligence corps, and later in the entire army, for people on the spectrum. “

Now in his new role as an entrepreneur, Simon continues the tradition. retrain.ai is a startup that uses artificial intelligence to connect employees’ skills and abilities to employment opportunities. Although the start-up is young and small–two years old, with 60 employees–a few months ago Simon decided to bring from his military experience not only the technological capability but also the project to integrate the people on the spectrum with the support of his team.


What does this require of you as a commander or manager?


“Mainly two things: First, to clearly identify the tasks they can succeed in. And it is no different from the name of each employee–there is no one role that suits all people on the autism spectrum. Second, to understand that there is a communication disability and give it the support of a team leader who knows how to mediate what is happening in the environment inside and out. “


Give me an example of a communication disability that requires mediation?


“If I say something ‘does not matter’, it can be interpreted as something that needs to be done in two days; but someone may think that the task should not be done at all.”

Simon, like all we interviewed, emphasizes that each person on the spectrum is different, that there is no one job that suits everyone, that there is no list of disabilities that characterizes everyone–so every employee needs the exact placement and accompaniment that knows how to mediate a whole world of challenges. Everyone interviewed also points out that this is HR work that is not much different from the other employees in the company.

After this disclaimer, however, there is a broad common denominator and roles that are more appropriate than others for the people on the spectrum. 

“Some people tend to be successful when there is a template definition and very high recurrence. The people we work with are tagging information–it’s a component within the world of artificial intelligence. Someone has to sample and give them to the machine. With this data, artificial intelligence can identify patterns,” Simon explains. “Labeling is a Sisyphean job and it goes abroad a lot. But part of the population on the spectrum is very fond of repetitiveness, it gives real comfort to succeed in the task again and again. An employee who loves repetition will flourish in such jobs. “


I can understand how Corporate can afford to return assignments from abroad to the country and absorb the costs and management resources. But a startup like you?


“It’s not trivial, we count every penny. But we are not making a philanthropic effort here, we plan to be a very successful company. We have 60 employees in Israel, London and New York. Of these, four are neuro-diversified (neurological diversity – RS) and work part-time. It is true that we could have done the work at half price abroad, but two considerations decided the decision: Professional-economic consideration and value-cultural consideration.

“On the professional side, outsourced work is not always good, and in artificial intelligence, if the quality of the labeling is not good enough, the whole pyramid collapses. The key is a quality tagged data set, and outsourcing does not always meet the standard.

“Culturally, we know that each of our employees receives three different job offers every day and there will always be companies that are willing to pay more. To be successful, we need a connection to vision, product and culture. We engage in skills and competencies and need to make sure people are measured on this basis regardless of their origin and religion. We sit in the heart of Tel Aviv and we have ultra-Orthodox workers, a Druze man, neuro-typical people and we are 50% men and women–and not in a classic professional gender division. Our outsourcing is in Nablus and not in Eastern Europe. It’s all about making a difference. That attracts better people. When people make so much money, money is not what excites them.”


I’m convinced, but still want to make sure their pay is equal.


“We do not have a situation where there are two people who do the same job and get a different salary. The labeling job brings in a lot less than a programming job so they earn less, but they get all the benefits, holidays, and technology.”


What adjustments need to be made in the work environment for it to be successful?


“Onboarding is a bit different because for some employees it is a first employment framework, so the accompaniment is more specific. We give an explanation of the work environment, explain the work procedures in WeWork and give space to ask questions. We also explain very clearly the clauses in employment contracts. Sometimes the points our contracts take for granted require mediation. There is no question of the ability to perceive and understand, you just have to invest in mediation and conveying the message.”


What do you do on fun days? Loud parties?


“The sharing is full of adjustments. For example, for the Purim event, we chose a place where you can dance but which also has a quiet seat outside. This also stems from consideration for the ultra-Orthodox man, who may not feel comfortable dancing with women.”

And in the work routine – did you need special seating arrangements?


“We work at WeWork and there was a time when the labeling team found itself in a larger room that also had a kitchenette, which is a social meeting point. We quickly realized it would not work, since the labeling team needs its own room to provide quiet space. But it’s really nothing. It’s just half a minute of attention and it’s not much different from considering the needs of the programmers. In the face of the indulgence and abundance that high-tech knows how to offer – it’s small.”


“There is no altruism or charity here”


Adi Moore Biran started working at Microsoft four years ago and is in charge of integrating Microsoft’s employees with disabilities in Israel. “I have a 14-year-old son who was only diagnosed four years ago. Since then it’s a topic close to my heart, I became involved in recruiting people with disabilities–physical, mental, neurological–and autistic disabilities.”


And are you okay with the term autistic? Not on the spectrum?


“I’m fine with every term, what matters is their combination. We do not treat recruitment as affirmative action. There is no altruism or charity here. The point is to allow everyone an equal opportunity to give value in society, and if an adjustment needs to be made to allow the employee to express that, it’s not an obstacle, it’s an adjustment.”

Tell me about adjustments in the employee recruitment process.


“A regular candidate gets an address and a room number and he comes to the interview. For a person on the spectrum, this process can be accompanied by a lot of anxiety beyond the usual anxiety of a job interview. So he will sometimes meet the interviewer before the interview. This leads to a reduction in stress.

A global company like Microsoft has a lot of experience and learning that comes from abroad, and one of the practices adopted in interviews in Israel is to prepare the interviewer manager. They do not have a screener, we do a half-hour preparatory conversation with the interviewers so that their style does not provoke antagonism. Sometimes we use non-traditional tools like a written interview or a video recording, or we can do tests in a gaming environment.”


Is there a match of the questions in the interview?


“Mostly not.”

Moore Byrne explains that the onboarding process is also tailored and includes accompaniment by the recruiting manager and the receiving team. “We talk to them about the sensitivities and also check with the employee issues of problematic sensory regulation such as sensitivity to light, noise and density to understand what physical adjustments will make it easier for them to perform the job. “There are rooms that are easier to darken, for example. This information is important because it creates a relationship of trust and open dialogue.”

Moore Byrne notes post-absorption accompaniment as a critical element in success. “This is a place for check-ins, to not let things fall between the cracks. We had a case of a manager who did not feel that the employee was accomplishing what was expected of him. In the conversation, it turned out that the employee was doing everything the manager asked but wasn’t showing it to him.”


And how do you manage the dismissal process?


“Up to this point I have not been involved in the process of dismissal, I would imagine that it is similar. If an employee is not suitable then a process of termination is done, with relevant adjustments and professional guidance.”


How many employees on the spectrum are there in Microsoft?


“I do not know and it is hard for me to know. An employee does not have to tell us he is autistic and there are high functioning people who do not know they are on the spectrum.”


The stigma is reduced.


Sharon Peleg is VP People and Places at BlueVine, an eight-year-old startup that employs 520 people globally, 180 of them in Israel. She conducts placement through Esther Sabra’s AQA organization, which trains and integrates people on the spectrum in software testing professions. 

“The first employee was hired for a job that requires very high analytical ability; analysis and concentration in small details,” says Peleg. “I knew some of the job requirements would suit people on the spectrum. We hired the employee through AQA and he has been working with us for a year. Now we are in the process of recruiting another employee through the organization.”


What adjustments are we talking about?


“The balance between office work and home, sometimes working in a quiet room, some detailed explanations from the team leader and a discussion of social situations that are sometimes unclear.”


How do formation days, parties and staff days fit in?


“It is up to the employee to choose. At the staff level, it is quite simple, but at the company level there are those who do not feel comfortable in a mass event.”


How big is this investment?


“There is investment here, absolutely, yes. The group manager took on the project knowing that there is investment. But it is part of the diversity agenda. Today, there are also more people meeting within the autistic world and there is a better understanding of these people’s abilities. There is also a desire to accommodate, and the stigma is diminishing. “


How has the organization contributed from the integration, beyond the skills and abilities they bring to the organization?


“These are people with very high motivation who want to integrate and prove they can succeed. They are also less likely to jump from job to job because these are people who are usually less comfortable with changes. Within the team, I see a lot of unit pride. They really want to help us succeed, so we are mobilizing to help and contain any unexpected situations. “


Recruiting managers should have openness.


“Incorporating and diversifying employees in an organization is always a challenge,” says Tali Vishnia-Shabtai, a consultant to organizations in the fields of diversity and the development of an inclusive organizational culture. “In working with different people or a different culture, there are always adjustments that need to be made, whether physical adjustments of the firm or training of the direct manager for scenarios he has not necessarily encountered in the past.

“First of all, the company must be open to diversity and assure openness in the specific manager who receives the employees. After that, the relevant jobs must be located and matched with employees with the right skills to produce a successful result. Adjustments should be made in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the staff. For example, giving up fun days or parties would be considered too high a price for the staff to pay, whereas a quieter work environment does not hurt the staff. Most of the investment is for employees who are like me and you; making adjustments for different employees is more complex.”

According to Vishnia-Saturn, one of the most common problems in integration is discomfort which can lead to a series of problems. For example, feedback to employees is a process where the message needs to be constructive and promoting. Fearing their message may be conveyed incorrectly, embarrassment, or discomfort with the situation can lead a manager to avoid such feedback with an employee on the spectrum. Managers who are afraid of the situation or do not know how to approach it sometimes prefer not to pass feedback to the employee, and then the employee’s ability to improve is reduced. The organization and manager need to understand that feedback is important and unavoidable but messages need to be tailored to employees.”


And what is your message to concerned executives? Are there also benefits to integration?


“Full. Employees are exposed to varying human capabilities and different worldviews. A diverse team is a more successful team; the atmosphere is richer, the solutions to problems come from different angles, and feedback comes from different viewpoints. Diversity has real competitive advantages. It greatly increases the talent pool and ability to recruit. There is also the issue of encouragement. A worker on the spectrum who receives very few opportunities for employment in his life–quality employment–will not be in a hurry to get up and go.”