On April 1, 2015, World Autism Awareness Day, Microsoft’s Mary Ellen Smith announced that Microsoft was about to launch a pilot program to hire people with autism. Smith, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of worldwide operations, made the pivotal announcement in front of 193 countries at the United Nations (U.N.) Headquarters in New York City. Since Smith’s April announcement at the UN, Microsoft has hired eleven new employees who have autism and is actively recruiting more job candidates with autism for open positions.
Microsoft’s pilot program has already helped one person with autism, Kyle Schwaneke, find a job in Microsoft’s Xbox department. Schwaneke was struggling to find a job after being was laid off from his job as an indie game developer. Unemployed for over a year, Schwaneke had begun to lose hope.
I interviewed at a bunch of companies, but really didn’t have any luck. Sometimes, I would send in my resume and hear nothing. Other times, I’d go to an interview, and I’d think I did well, and then hear back I hadn’t done well – but they also couldn’t give me any feedback about it. I eventually started applying at places like Target and Radio Shack for the chance to interview for a minimum wage retail job. I was pretty much out of options.”
Schwaneke was a talented developer and even graduated from of one of the top gaming design schools in the US. However, Schwaneke also has Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is estimated that 80% of people with an ASD are unemployed; quite significant considering approximately 1% of the world population has an ASD. Even though people with an ASD often excel in areas like science, mathematics, and technology, their behaviors are often seen as strange and are misunderstood by potential employers at job interviews.
Microsoft’s Smith knows first-hand the struggles for people with an ASD, her 19-year-old son, Shawn was diagnosed with an ASD over 15 years ago. At the time, Smith and her husband were told that their son would not be like other kids and would likely be handicapped from doing the same things as other kids or even as an adult. Smith looks back on how people with an ASD are unfairly judged by potential employers:
These are people who may not be able to pass an initial interview or screen because their social skills might not be 100 percent in line with what’s expected in a typical interview, but what amazing talent are we missing as a result? There are unique minds being underused and overlooked.”
Schwaneke was one of the lucky ones; he now is an Xbox software engineer at Microsoft. “For the first time, I felt like I was in place where I understood other people, and they understood me.” Hopefully, there will be a bright future for Schwaneke and other people like him at Microsoft.