The perceptions surrounding autism and other developmental disorders are quickly changing.
Companies like SAP and Dell, for example, employ hundreds of neurodiverse employees and interns in technical roles, as well as in marketing, customer relations and other non-engineering jobs. One such employee is Serena Schaefer, a software engineer at Microsoft who was recruited under the company's autism hiring program.
Overhearing high school parents question the abilities of teenagers like herself brought Schaefer into tech. Now, she serves as an example of the changing nature of career paths for neurodiverse individuals — a population that suffers from high unemployment and underemployment.
"There's this doubt if someone has autism. Being able to be given the chance to do something is crucial," Schaefer told Protocol.
Protocol talked to Schaefer to learn about her interview process at Microsoft, the importance of intersectionality when it comes to diversity efforts, why she hopes neurodiverse hiring programs go international and how companies can improve the experience of workers with autism.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What initially made you want to get into the tech industry?
Back in freshman year of high school, I was at a small special-education school, and my biology teacher told me he was looking to start a robotics team. I didn't know anything about robotics really, but I just decided to say yes and join. It was the first-year team, so no one really knew anything except the mentors.
You are assigned to do a certain task, and that year it was to create a robot that shoots basketballs through a hoop. There's a kickoff event where you get the supplies you need and hear about this task. At that event, I overheard parents say how they weren't too optimistic or hopeful that we would be able to produce a robot like these top public high schools could. They thought we'd have fun but wouldn't be able to finish anything in the six weeks we'd been given.
That was really eye-opening but frustrating for me. I would have thought all the parents would have been the biggest supporters. But it didn't seem like everyone was very supportive, so I was determined to change their minds. It was amazing we actually finished the robot, competed in competitions and scored points. I just gained a really deep interest in technology.
Like that experience with the parents, do you find that same stigma exists in the tech industry today?
I do. There's movies and TV shows showing kids with autism and Down syndrome and they're like, rocking in a corner and being nonfunctional. It's what people think of when they think of neurodiversity. Or they may think of Sheldon Cooper and think that everyone is good at math. But there's this doubt if someone has autism. Being able to be given the chance to do something is crucial.
Serena Schaefer's mug.Photo: Microsoft
You've seen a larger reckoning over diversity and inclusion across industries, but definitely tech is a big part of that discussion. Have you seen a shift when it comes to neurodiversity? What progress has happened and what needs work?
There's been progress recently. Companies like Microsoft are helping to make neurodiversity hiring programs more mainstream, more well-known — at least in the U.S. If Microsoft expands programs like these to France and other countries, it would become even more mainstream. Once these other countries start recognizing neurodiversity at a more public level, it will be even better.
Do you get the chance to do a lot of outreach or work with neurodiverse high school students or those looking to get into the tech industry?
Recently, I haven't done much work outside of Microsoft. But whenever there was an autism hiring luncheon, I would go and talk to the candidates and meet them and talk about both my profession and neurodiversity itself.
I've done more women-in-STEM-related things. Intersectionality is something that is prevalent in conversations about diversity. Females with autism are fairly rare. And females in the tech industry are underrepresented. So I do think that we can talk about neurodiversity but also how it intersects with other types of experiences.
What impressed you about Microsoft's hiring program? And you mentioned expanding globally. How else do you think the company can improve it?
It was interviews over multiple days. So if you had an off day, you still would be able to go back the next day and actually prove what you can do. But the first day, rather than just sticking you in the room with some developer and have him or her ask preselected questions, you worked in a team to create a mock product and you got to present it to a bunch of hiring managers. And they didn't judge you based on your communication style.
With neurodiversity, some people think very fast. But some people may need a little more time to come up with the answer. Microsoft allowed everyone in the spectrum and accommodated everything they might need. It should be the standard for hiring for any candidate, not just those who happen to have a diagnosis. I had to prove I had a diagnosis. What about the people who don't have a diagnosis and [are] on the spectrum? Or have dyslexia? They should get a chance to prove themselves in that way.
I've spoken to companies and other neurodiverse individuals who say the shift to remote work has features that are more accommodating. What has your experience been?
There have been some positives. I tend to fidget a lot just to keep my hands busy and that may look kind of strange in a working environment. But working remotely, no one is going by my office wondering why I'm twirling a pen all the time. It lets me feel like I can be more relaxed and not have to constantly make sure that I am suppressing myself. I've found it hard to maintain eye contact with people, but looking at a computer screen makes it a little easier. You can stare at the camera. It's a bunch of small things that add up. It can be a bit isolating, but we do online games, virtual escape rooms, things like that. Nothing too negative, I would say it's more positive.
Do you think the shift to remote work will help companies bring more people in under neurodiversity?
It would be great if there was a choice of whether to come into the office or not. Some people might prefer being in an actual office. A hybrid model is the way to go. Hopefully this pandemic can help us reconsider interviewing and allowing employees to do their best work however they are able to.
How should companies act to create a better environment for their neurodiverse employees once they're in the door?
I was first hired as an intern and on the first day someone from the program came in and presented to my team about neurodiversity and possible challenges I may face. I didn't have to explain it myself. It made it a bit less awkward. And afterwards my colleagues would ask a lot of questions. It was really inspiring to see how willing they were to include me.
Companies should have those sessions for a whole group of teams, trying to make them recognize any unconscious bias that they have and be aware that their coworkers may have dyslexia or some learning disability — or may be neurodiverse. It's about expanding what's already there to a larger scale so that more people can be aware.
How do you manage being an advocate for the community while also handling all the other day-to-day pressures of life and work?
It's pressure, but it's good pressure. It makes me reflect on how I interact with others who are neurodiverse or have disabilities. But I'm also white. I have sight. I have hearing. By trying to do diversity- and inclusion-related efforts, I'm hopefully widening my own awareness of others. I want to do more than coding something or engineering something. I want to feel like I'm making a positive difference beyond just those who are using the products I am making.