From autism awareness to autism acceptance: Auticon and its global impact
Employing IT consultants solely from the autistic community is a winning formula for global tech social enterprise Auticon. We talk to 2021’s Social Enterprise UK International Impact award winner about its unique approach to equality in the workplace and its big ambitions for the future.
This year, Auticon UK won the International Impact award at the UK Social Enterprise Awards.
Paula Woodman, the British Council’s global head of impact economy and one of the award judges, said: “This social enterprise is changing lives every day and it’s great to see that they have a growing global brand. They are demonstrating the value of replicating social purpose models as a route to scale. There were launches in two countries this year as well as growth in a number of other countries.”
She added: “Social enterprises operating internationally are trailblazers.”
Auticon UK is part of an international social enterprise and a business-to-business tech company. It provides IT consulting services to corporate clients such as Zurich Insurance, NatWest, KPMG and PwC. With 18 offices around the globe – including one in London and one in Edinburgh – and operations in nine countries, Auticon employs more than 250 professional consultants who are all on the autism spectrum. Each consultant has a job coach who provides a wide range of support to ensure that they perform to their full professional potential.
Auticon’s focus on autism is twofold. Firstly, as a social enterprise, its core social mission is to improve the employment prospects of autistic adults: in the UK, according to the Office of National Statistics, only 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment. Using a different methodology, the National Autistic Society has calculated the employment rate at just 16%.
The solution, according to Auticon, is to take a different perspective to most employers. Instead of focusing on equality of treatment – a one-size-fits-all approach to employees, it is about equality of opportunities and the key is flexibility rather than conformity – flexing to suit the strengths and weaknesses of every individual.
Secondly, Auticon says there is an amazing untapped pool of talent in the autistic community. People on the autism spectrum might have superior abilities in pattern recognition, prolonged concentration, attention to detail, accuracy, logical analysis as well as unbiased and analytical communication based on facts which give them an advantage in the IT consultancy services that the social enterprise offers.
- Explore Auticon’s growth from its roots in Germany and Canada to the global enterprise of today in our interview with Garth Johnson
Auticon UK published its first impact report in 2018 which developed into a global impact report the next year. The 2021 Global Impact Report shows that 83% of the social enterprise’s consultants said that working at Auticon had improved their skills and abilities and three quarters said that their self-confidence had improved.
For Auticon, applying for the International Impact awards was an opportunity to further share its impact. Andrea Girlanda (pictured), CEO of Auticon UK, and Franziska Zeidler, Head of Operations, tell us more.
Pioneers Post: How do you feel about winning the International Impact award?
Franziska Zeidler: We are more than pumped to have won this really special award. It took us by surprise, nevertheless, because the competition was just so extremely good. So it was a very special moment for us.
Andrea Girlanda: It's really a privilege. The International Impact Award is yet another testimony really to the impact that we, at Auticon, are having across the globe.
PP: The judges were impressed by your growing global brand. How important is this global growth to Auticon? What challenges do you face in trying to grow globally?
AG: Well, we have very ambitious growth plans. Unfortunately, we had to put them on hold during the pandemic in 2021 and we are just restarting the conversation recently. We want to expand and bring our recipe everywhere. We want to launch in new territories, where we have no footprint yet, such as countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific.
We have very ambitious growth plans. We want to expand and bring our recipe everywhere
While we appreciate and accept the importance of self-identification for some individuals, and the lengthy diagnostic process, our focus for now is on countries where there is a robust diagnostic process for autism. Being a social enterprise, our success is measured by the impact we have and our main goal is to improve employment opportunities for autistic adults. As autism is the cornerstone of Auticon’s social mission, we do ask for an autism diagnosis from our candidates.
FZ: Even though we are limited to places that only carry out formal diagnosis for autism, at the same time we are shifting perceptions about autism in the workplace in the sense that it will go beyond just those countries that we are seeking to expand to.
PP: We’d like to bring what you do to life with a real-life story. Is there one particular success story that stands out to you?
AG: A consultant who joined us two or three years ago went through several ups and downs. Some projects were okay, others were more challenging for her and she wasn't very positive about the future. Then she just did fantastically and progressed and improved. Through job coaching, technical support and finding a project that aligned to her interests, led to her finding her own passion that is marketing and, because we do not offer marketing roles at Auticon, she wanted to pursue a role outside of Auticon. She wanted to fly with her own wings and she is now working elsewhere.
This may not be a traditional example of a success story but it is a rewarding one. We see this as our mission coming full circle as someone who came to us with low confidence in her abilities who left with a new sense of confidence and understanding of herself.
PP: What motivates you in your work?
AG: The potential. The accessible market with which is not just limited to the autism community, but it embraces everyone. Our strategies for neurodiversity inclusion in the workplace are ultimately aligned with the strategy for inclusion at large.
We all share the same ambition: to be accepted for who we are and appreciated for the work we do
Regardless of whether we are neurodivergent, or neurotypical, we all have something in common. We all share the same ambition: to be accepted for who we are and appreciated for the work we do. This is what drives me.
FZ: This is a journey from autism awareness to autism acceptance. It needs to go beyond just mere awareness, for it needs this additional aspect. As people tend to say, there's no real diversity without inclusion.
PP: We saw that you launched a podcast recently. What inspired you to do that and what are you aiming to achieve with it?
AG: The series is designed to drive awareness of the realities of autism in the workplace, from the merits of hiring neurodiverse talent, through to some of the more common challenges faced by autistic adults navigating the workplace. We really want to foster an authentic conversation around autism at work, as each episode features interviews with leading voices on autism, including figures from the business world, social media influencers and autism academics.
The objective is to start a conversation around autism in business, as opposed to autism in general. That's our focus at Auticon. And it is a conversation that, ideally, we would like to focus on strengths as opposed to weaknesses. There is so much that can be celebrated about autism, and the contribution that autistic individuals can bring to employers.
PP: Why did you join Auticon, Mr Girlanda? Was it a big change from your previous roles?
AG: In my career I worked for many companies which had very aggressive and toxic sales environments. I always thought that there was another way to run a business that would allow employers to achieve their business goals, and individuals to have a balanced and rewarding life. So, I was looking to combine my personal ambition in life with my professional life. I then came across Auticon and I thought it was just a very unique recipe, one that would allow me to do just that.
PP: What’s next for Auticon?
AG: We have an ambition. Within three to four years, we would like to provide technology careers to 1,000 autistic adults globally. Our goal is to help employers successfully attract, recruit, assess, support and retain neurodiverse talent and become a more accepting and supporting organisation. This is the long-term goal.
We say this because the diversity and inclusion transformation journey is never ending. There is no benchmark or finish line. It's not that one day we can say, “We did it.” Inclusion is not binary, there are infinite shades of grey.
The British Council is the sponsor of the International Impact Award at the UK Social Enterprise Awards.
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