Microsoft hiring program opens more doors to people with autism

Kyle Schwaneke’s bank account was approaching empty.

He’d been unemployed for a year and a half, since the indie game studio he’d been working for shut its doors. His parents, looking for ways to help while he job hunted, had paid the remainder of his apartment lease, but he’d reached the end of that, too.

“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,” Schwaneke said. “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.”

A promising young developer, Schwaneke graduated from of one of the top gaming design schools in the nation. He also has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum.

His situation is far from an anomaly. An estimated 80 percent of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are unemployed, though many are fully capable of holding down a job, and some possess exceptional skills in areas such as science, mathematics or technology. The 80 percent unemployment rate becomes even more significant considering an estimated one percent of the world’s population has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

On April 1, about the same time Schwaneke was wondering whether he’d soon need to move back in with his parents, Microsoft’s Mary Ellen Smith stepped before the representatives of 193 countries at United Nations (U.N.) Headquarters in New York City. It was World Autism Day and Smith, corporate vice president of worldwide operations, announced that Microsoft was about to launch a pilot program to hire people with autism. In the months since the program began, Microsoft has hired 11 new employees who have autism and is actively seeking candidates for more open positions.

Kyle Schwaneke came to Microsoft through a unique hiring program for candidates with autism.

“For the first time, I felt like I was in place where I understood other people, and they understood me,” said Kyle Schwaneke, an Xbox software engineer recruited by Microsoft’s program for candidates with autism.

“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?” Smith said, after recounting her memorable day at the U.N. “There are unique minds being underused and overlooked.”

Announcing the launch of Microsoft’s new pilot program to the United Nations was especially meaningful for Smith, whose 19-year-old son Shawn has autism. She recalled a heart-wrenching moment from when he was diagnosed 15 years ago.

“I think they understand,” she overheard one doctor say to another on her way out of the medical center. It was the same two doctors who had just told Smith and her husband they needed to seriously limit their expectations for their toddler and what he could achieve, because he had autism.

The young family drove the 15 miles home in complete silence.

“We didn’t know what to say,” said Smith. “But we do now.”

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