CHICAGO — Justin Pierce fought long and hard for a seat in this gleaming downtown office building.

Pierce, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, laid out the numbers: 328 applications, 135 rejection letters and 14 interviews, resulting finally — after almost five years — in his first professional job offer, as part of a technology team at the Chicago office of EY, a professional services firm formerly known as Ernst & Young.

“It was like winning the lottery or finally getting your Cinderella story happy ending,” said Pierce, 31.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The unemployment rate is estimated at 66 percent or more for people with autism — a developmental disability that affects communication and social interaction — but thanks to a new program at EY, Pierce and 14 of his Chicago co-workers are beating the odds. They were chosen for their abilities in areas such as computer programming and cybersecurity, and hired after a weeklong on-site interview process that stressed technical skills and teamwork, rather than verbal agility and charisma.

The EY program, which employs 60 people in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and San Jose, began about four years ago, when the company was looking for new talent, new ways of thinking and ways to diversify its workforce, according to Hiren Shukla, director of the program, which is known internally as the Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence (NCoE).

The company tried recruiting high-functioning people with autism, who can have very strong technical skills and the ability to manage large amounts of data. In a pilot program, employees with autism showed they could learn new technologies very quickly and apply them in powerful and unexpected ways, Shukla said.

“This is a talent pool that we think can be an integral part of helping us build and thrive,” he said.

Employees with autism said the EY program has brought an array of benefits: meaningful work, intellectual challenge and financial independence after years of underemployment. Simple accommodations at work, including noise-canceling headphones and a job coach shared among neurodiverse employees in the four cities, help people who may be sensitive to noise and light or need extra help in navigating the workplace.

“(They) support people with autism and help people with autism thrive in the workplace,” said Christopher Easton, 23, who is on the autism spectrum and works in cybersecurity. “It allows me to bring my full self to work,” he said of the neurodiversity program.

EY is one of a small number of companies — along with Microsoft, Ford and the software company SAP — that are leading the way when it comes to hiring people with autism for white-collar jobs, according to David Geslak, president of Autism Workforce in La Grange, a company that helps businesses employ people with autism.

His blue eyes twinkling behind wire-rimmed glasses, Pierce joked about coming to Chicago in the midst of a historic cold snap, throwing in a musical flourish from the movie “Frozen”: “The cold never bothered me anyway!” he sang as he spun a full circle in his swivel-seat.

But despite his energy and charm, Pierce had trouble landing a job via the standard interview process. Like many people with autism, he has some difficulties with language, sometimes pausing for a few seconds to find the right word. It’s like reading a book and the words start disappearing mid-sentence, he said.

Other people with autism may have trouble making eye contact or reading social cues. Some rock in their seats. An employee at the Chicago office jerks his arm unexpectedly.

Such behaviors may eliminate you from consideration during the standard job interview process, said Shukla, even if you’d make a great employee. The interview process at EY is different.

“We don’t care about the eye contact,” Shukla said. “We care (whether) you are eager to learn, and can you apply it?”

Employees with autism are hired via an intensive process that includes a week of meetings and exercises that test ability and teamwork. There’s feedback tailored to people with autism, who tend to be quite direct and to appreciate directness in others.

And, in the end, there are job offers.

Pierce, who graduated with a degree in applied statistics from Grand Valley State University in 2014, and has worked as a kitchen aide and a wine-tasting associate, was living in his parents’ basement when he learned that he’d gotten the job. Ian Nancarrow, 30, who has Asperger’s, paid the bills with jobs in restaurants and retail during an approximately six-year search for a professional tech job.

“It’s going to be emotional to recall every little detail,” Nancarrow said of his EY job offer. “Let’s just say it was very hard to keep my composure as I was trying to walk out of the building so I could call my family. My mom was jumping, hooting and hollering in the background, as my dad was saying, ‘Don’t let this go to your head.'”

The employees with autism are hired as account support associates and are paid the same as other employees who hold that title, Shukla said.

Autism is a complicated and widely varying condition that comes with strengths, disabilities and differences. Employees in the neurodiversity program described challenges, with Nancarrow saying that at times it can be difficult to form words or represent himself in a way that’s understandable to others. But at the same time, Nancarrow said, he’s capable of a laser-like focus that can be very helpful when it comes to mastering a new skill.

“I wouldn’t call it a superpower, but it is an advantage in its own way,” he said.

Because people with autism often bring a different way of thinking to a problem, they can find solutions that others miss, Shukla said. For example, in month three of the pilot program in Philadelphia, a trainer was teaching the employees a very complex form of technology used in the financial services sector. Halfway through the training, the employees with autism suggested another approach to learning the material — one that cut training time in half for the entire firm.

“We realized that we’re on to something here,” Shukla said. “Their ability to consume and apply (new information) was faster than we’d ever seen before.”

Easton said he is pleased that EY provides him with all the resources he needs to do high-quality work in cybersecurity. Pierce’s current duties include spot-checking computer code, looking for errors. When the code is wrong, he somehow intuitively knows, he said: “The best way I can describe it is I can see concepts linked together like you see constellations in the sky: how three or four ideas connect to form a pattern.”

Nancarrow is working on a computer program that compiles data and presents it visually.

“Each and every day, there’s a new skill to pick up, there’s a new person to meet, there’s a new challenge to take on,” he said. “It’s thrilling. I get to be here and gain skills, gain all of these aspects of myself that I never really had an opportunity to pursue: meeting, talking, being verbal, communicating.”

© 2019 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.