It was 2018, and Leon Campbell was worried about getting a job.
The Hunter College grad, now 25, had a degree in, but had never been employed anywhere before. Campbell, who has , wondered how he'd do as an employee, or whether he'd make a mistake and be penalized for it.
Thanks to Hunter's accessibilities job program, though, he heard about a startup called Daivergent, whose aim is to connect companies with a remote tech workforce of folks on the autism spectrum.
For the last two years, Campbell's been a quality assurance specialist, making sure that the work others are doing remotely meets the standards of the companies they're working for. He's gotten work experience, but has also gotten the chance to learn professional etiquette, how to keep pace with projects and how to fit into a company structure. Over the phone, he said he's still learning but it's all without the fear of being misunderstood or rejected by his employer.
"Up to this point I've never had a job, so it was a good way of me essentially learning what are important hallmarks of having a job," he said.
Campbell has avoided being part of an alarming statistic among people with autism. According to a 2017 report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, only 14% of those with autism held a paying job in their community. That's despite the fact that 35% of students with autism attend college. Meanwhile, data from Integrate Autism Employment Advisors shows that more than 1 million people with autism will become adults in the next 10 years.
In the last several years, big names in tech like Microsoft and Dell have launched autism hiring programs. That's where Daivergent comes in. SAP, which makes software for businesses, has an Autism at Work program as well and is working on a pilot program with the startup. Another part of SAP, Fieldglass, which is a vendor management system, also makes Daivergent available to its clients.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the economy, leading to more than 36 million jobless claims over the last six weeks, and raising questions about the kind of opportunities that might be left for people with autism. But Daivergent co-founder Byran Dai says he hasn't seen an impact.
"We're seeing that the remote environment that companies are moving to actually taps into the advantages of autism talent," he said.
This is personal
For Dai, the question of what happens to all those people who are unemployed or underemployed was all too real.
Dai's younger brother Brandon has autism, and when their mother died five years ago, Dai said he realized that not only was Brandon's biggest advocate gone, but his brother would soon be aging out of state and federally funded programs. In fact, he turns 21 in July and will hopefully continue on with his service provider.
It's a concept called "falling off the cliff," he said, describing the loss of support and access to resources people might still need.
At the same time, Dai's background was in data science. He'd worked with companies and startups to build artificial intelligence applications, and gleaned that there's quite a bit of human work that goes into AI-related tasks, like labeling. Meanwhile, much of the job placement that those with autism do end up with is in what Dai referred to as "a legacy space." Roles like cashiers or grocery baggers.
"That's the million-dollar question," Dai said. "How can we make sure that when our loved ones turn 21, or who are already adults, how do we make sure that they don't just stagnate or stay removed from the 21st century economy?"
With that in mind, Dai and his co-founder, Rahul Mahida, launched Daivergent in 2018. The company has two main offerings: a remote workforce that handles data labeling and annotation, and autism talent recruitment, meaning Daivergent actually has a service that integrates with HR software that helps companies find tech talent on the spectrum.
Though it may sound purely like a feel-good story, Dai said Daivergent isn't charity. While autism looks different for different people, there are those on the spectrum who, he said, excel at tasks that are detail-oriented, complex and rote, like quality assurance and data labeling.
There's a mindset shift at work here, he said, "starting to conceptualize autism and things that might have been seen formally as disabilities, really as a different way of seeing the world." And so there's benefit in connecting those with sought-after abilities to the jobs that require them, be they full-time, part-time or freelance.
In short, it's an argument for neurodiversity — a concept which holds that something like autism is a variation in how the brain works, rather than a flaw — at companies.
"We know that there's a huge number of individuals who are on the spectrum, who are unemployed or underemployed, but they have awesome potential and are highly educated and have great skills," said Sarah Loucks, global lead for SAP's Autism at Work program. "But if they don't have the right environment or maybe adjustments or accommodations depending on what their particular needs are, it can be harder for them to shine."
For Daivergent, the work doesn't end with getting folks plugged into jobs. There's still that giant unemployment figure to consider.
On the job
There are a variety of reasons why those with autism have struggled with employment. Although autism doesn't come with one definite set of characteristics, Kim Musheno, vice president of public policy at the Autism Society, noted that some folks with autism may not do as well with so-called "soft-skills" that can include knowing how to dress for an interview or simply how to present well.
"When you go to an interview, [it's important] to show that you're a team player and how you communicate," she said. "So if you have difficulty communicating, you seem shy or inward or awkward in any way...it's very hard for folks."
All this can knock a qualified candidate out of the running for a job.
Often, these are some of the lessons kids learn at summer or after-school jobs in high school. The employment rate for folks with autism who never worked for pay in high school was 40% compared to 90% for those who did, according to a report on employment outcomes for young adults on the spectrum from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.
So soft skills are also on the menu for Daivergent. The startup provides training courses in both tech and non-tech areas to help the workforce become stronger candidates.
Campbell told me he can turn to Daivergent staffers who are "there just to make sure that I know what to do when. If I'm ill-prepared [they] go over some examples of instances of assignments and, you know — even for mental support in some cases."
Dai knows that not everyone who comes into Daivergent will want to be a data annotator or labeler forever. "This is a way to actually also feed into a broader mission of getting folks experience and the familiarity with what work entails so that Daivergent becomes a steppingstone for them to actually achieve a much broader career aspiration," he said.
Going forward, Dai wants to figure out how to reach people years before they're ever going to be trying for their first job. More immediately, he wants to expand Daivergent to include others who are neurodiverse, like folks with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD and more.
But all that goes back to one of the core premises for why Daivergent exists at all: "How do you start to pull people away from that entrenched view of what is autism, what is ADHD — what might be seen as a negative in a person and instead actually reframe it," he said.