The autism diagnosis led Stefan from unemployment to his dream job
Initially, no one wanted to hire Stefan. Now, he is being pursued by recruiters eager for his expertise. Thanks to an IT company thinking outside the box, autism went from being an obstacle to a key asset.
Stefan, 29, has been programming since his teenage years and holds a bachelor’s degree from Uppsala University. He has a wealth of knowledge but finds it challenging to engage in small talk with strangers. Today, his unique skill set makes him sought after in the job market. However, when he applied for his first job, he faced obstacles.
“I never got the chance to show employers what I could do. Much of what they look for in recruitment is not competence but social skills,” says Stefan.
The turning point was an IT consulting company where an autism diagnosis is a requirement, and employment is solely based on actual skills. It’s not a social enterprise but a profit-driven corporation that has come up with a winning idea.
Let’s rewind to the summer of 2016 to start from the beginning. Anders Barnå, who has been working in the industry since 1995, saw a job advertisement seeking a CEO to start a new company.
“It said you would work with people with Asperger’s and help them enter the job market. That made me curious because I wanted to do something more meaningful than just chasing better results,” says Anders Barnå.
They adopted a simple Norwegian concept: leverage the strengths that many with an autism diagnosis have, ensure that their expertise benefits clients, and contribute to getting unemployed individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities into work.
When Anders Barnå read about autism spectrum disorders, as the diagnosis is called today, he immediately understood the benefit of bringing more people with autism into the IT industry.
“Before Unicus, I worked for a company that was responsible for a testing department, and we struggled a lot. We hired testers who worked for maybe six months before wanting to move on, which is not optimal from a quality assurance perspective.”
He believes that some of the best consultants he has worked with in the past may have had autism.
“The strengths of many with autism include attention to detail. They notice things others don’t. Other strengths are analytical and logical abilities, and an appreciation for following structures and tasks with some repetition.”
The recruitment process for Unicus Sweden AB is efficient, without much talk about “bullshit,” to quote Anders Barnå.
“We only interview people with autism, so we ask direct and clear questions.”
In 30 minutes, he learns everything he needs to know about the person.
“If I had interviewed a neurotypical person without an autism diagnosis, it could have easily taken one and a half hours,” says Barnå.
Unicus argues that autism does not necessarily mean a reduction in work ability; it’s all about workplaces offering the right conditions.
“Our consultants have different needs, but generally, it’s about simple adjustments that I would say benefit all employees in a company. It’s important to be clear about tasks, expectations, and who is responsible for what.”
The biggest challenge in starting the company was never the employees but something as basic as securing insurance for the company.
“If our employees have an autism diagnosis, they are considered not healthy, and therefore, they are not entitled to full insurance. They saw everyone with autism as a risk, and I find that very strange.”
What was supposed to be a quick procurement process took time. But in the end, Anders Barnå found a solution.
“That insurance company was the only one that agreed that a person working full-time is healthy, even with an autism diagnosis.”
Over six years later, Barnå can confirm that he was right.
“It’s more like we have lower sick leave than other companies.”
For Stefan, accustomed to failed job attempts, the process at Unicus was something entirely new.
“There was a focus on my competence. I had to fill out forms about what I could do and my experiences. In the interviews, there was a clear agenda, and we did various tests. I’m glad I didn’t have to answer questions like ‘Tell me about yourself,’ where I never know if they want one sentence or my whole life story.”
All consultants hired by Unicus have previously been outside the job market. There is no statistic on the percentage of Swedes with an autism diagnosis who are unemployed, but the organization Autism Sweden estimates that the unemployment rate is higher than 50 percent.
In collaboration with the Swedish Public Employment Service, newly hired individuals at Unicus first undergo 12 weeks of internship and training within the company before starting work with clients.
“It was very nice to have that period at Unicus. I got to know everyone here and understand what is expected of me,” says Stefan.
Barnå says that the internship is work-oriented but is clear that they do not want to teach employees to pretend to be neurotypical. However, those who want to can practice how to handle small talk at the coffee machine.
“Everyone needs to find their own balance. If there’s too much social interaction, many lose energy. At the same time, it can be important for some to join the workplace group, and then we encourage them to try to have lunch with colleagues maybe once a week,” says Barnå.
Recovery is something they practice during the internship at Unicus. When SvD visits the company’s premises in Södermalm, Stockholm, everyone takes a coffee break together.
“Some can otherwise work for as long as they want and only in the afternoon realize they are tired and forgot to take a break. That doesn’t hold in the long run,” says Anders Barnå.
For the first six months, employees receive a 50 percent wage subsidy. Then, it transitions into a regular permanent employment. One of the customers is Scania. Group Manager Jakob Robertsson tells SvD that he has had a consultant from Unicus in his team for two years now.
“It has been the same consultant all the time, and we are very satisfied. The right competence is scarce in the IT area today, and combined with actively working on diversity, that was why we contacted Unicus,” says Jakob Robertsson.
The consultant is now an essential part of the team.
“We have a great diversity among everyone in the team, and our consultant from Unicus has a special way of approaching tasks and contributing to the team,” says Jakob Robertsson.
Unicus Sweden’s growth has been steady since its inception. They have framework agreements with some of Sweden’s largest companies.
“We have 60 consultants and 5 on internship now. There are about 200 applicants for each position, so there are certainly people to hire.”
The turnover of personnel is very low. Most consultants stay, and only a few have chosen to transition to permanent positions with the clients they are placed with. Stefan has been employed by Unicus for over three years and has no plans to leave.
“I feel really great here. If I want variety, I have the opportunity to switch assignments. So there’s more indirect freedom in this setup.”
Consulting assignments have so far been with large Swedish companies with employees from several different continents.
“It forces clarity. You can’t rely on someone from India or Belarus having the same experiences and social context. So people say what they mean, something I think Swedes are sometimes not very good at.”
However, about once a month, Stefan is contacted by recruiters on LinkedIn who wonder if he is interested in working for them instead.
“So now the roles are reversed, and I ignore their requests. Why didn’t they give me the chance to show what I could do when I was unemployed and looking for a job three years ago?”
This article was published in SvD Näringsliv and translated by Unicus.
Written by Angelica Öhagen
Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman