I’d like to start out by introducing you to Focus Professional Services Inc. [Focus]. Just like PQA, Focus offers software QA outsourcing services, and just like the PLATO initiative, Focus is a diverse employer. The difference is that our employees are on the autism spectrum. Although Focus and PQA are professional competitors, we are united in a much bigger agenda, the employment of under-represented and marginalized groups.
There are all kinds of articles and studies that extoll the benefits of workplace diversification; such as, improved profit margins, better resiliency to marketplace changes, more robust decision-making processes and lower employee turnover. All amazing outcomes that bring about lots of buzz in the marketplace; however, does this buzz translate into action? Apparently, not often enough.
According to a recent study in diversification published by an IT HR association in BC, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to diversifying that organizations experience is the plethora of choices. It is not the lack of will as there is lots of interest in doing the right thing. It becomes confusing, though, to identify what the right thing is and then how to go about doing it.
PQA and Focus are brainstorming how we can help organizations move their intent to diversify in IT roles into action. We are inviting other organizations to join us: organizations that represent marginalized groups.
Now, I’d like to tell you a little more about how Focus came to be. I am often asked why I started Focus. My answer is two-fold. First, I have decades of IT experience. I built my career in the IT sector, specifically in systems development, and I wanted to stick to what I know best.
Second, I have two adult sons on the autism spectrum (as an aside, neither interested in IT). I want to see their worlds become ever-more inclusive. For people to become more aware and accepting of autistics, exposure is key to shifting the emphasis from differences to similarities among us. When we can relate to others by experiencing the similarities, we become more accepting and inclusive.
Now let’s address the question, what is autism?
Autism is a complex neurological difference that affects individuals to varying degrees and affects the following areas:
- Social and emotional reciprocity
- Nonverbal communicative behaviours
- Developing, maintaining and understanding relationships
- Restrictive, repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests or activities in at least two of the following:
- Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects or speech
- Resistance to change, inflexibility or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behaviours
- Restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
- Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment.
These symptoms must be present from early childhood, cause significant impairment in social, occupational or other functional areas and cannot be better explained as an intellectual disability.
The severity to which a person is affected by autism is differentiated into three levels, where level 1 represents those individuals who are less severely impacted and level 3 most severely impacted. At Focus, we hire individuals who qualify as Level 1 on the Autism Spectrum.
The lack of ability to relate to others for autistics can result in social awkwardness and avoidance. They may take things literally and not pick up on social cues and body language. Jokes and sarcasm may be difficult for them. They can be painfully aware of their inability to “get” the situation and may avoid social contact which is not the same as not wanting to connect with others.
Some autistics develop speech early and use language beyond their years, sounding like little professors. Their language can be formal and instructive rather than conversational. Others develop speech much later or not at all.
Autistics can have a low threshold for anxiety and seek comfort from repetitive behaviors such as pacing and fidgeting.
Sensorimotor processing can also be affected. Autistics can be hypo- and hyper-reactive to touch, sound, sight, taste and smell. They may not be able to make eye contact while listening at the same time. Motor skills may be challenging. They may be unable to print well or tie shoelaces. Their gait may be uneven, and the ability to judge where they are in relation to objects and other people may be poor.
In spite of these challenges, autistics offer a different perspective and experience of the world. In their specific interest areas, whether it is in the arts, sciences, politics or day-to-day living, they offer strengths and talents that are of value to the world at large. To flourish, they need to be respected and valued for who they are, as they are.
In BC, there are 55,000+ people on the autism spectrum: 40,000 of them are adults. Most autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed. With employment, individuals on the spectrum can acquire greater economic independence, contribute inclusively in a meaningful way and enjoy choices that enhance a person’s quality of life.
Please visit our website at www.focusps.ca to learn more.
About Carol Simpson
Carol Simpson has worked in the IT field for over 30 years, managing departments with 60+ IT professionals and project budgets of $50M. She started her career in Vancouver as a programmer at IBM Canada and moved on to operate her own software development shop, work in the private and public sectors in senior and executive levels of management, and teach at the University of Toronto. She recently completed a one-year volunteer assignment in which she successfully recruited, trained, and onboarded 6 individuals with autism for an international company’s autism employment initiative. Carol is one of a handful of individuals in Canada who has successfully placed or hired individuals with autism into full-time careers that afford them solid, middle-class lifestyles. Carol sees Focus as a contributor to the normalization of employing individuals with autism in the workplace. She believes strongly in the equal rights of autistics to acceptance and inclusion in society’s constructs of community, education, governance, and employment. She has two adult sons on the autism spectrum.