Anyone who has been diagnosed with autism is likely to have more experience with unemployment and underemployment than those who aren’t on the spectrum. Now, a startup that launched in Los Angeles earlier this month is determined to help change that.
The startup is Coding Autism, and I had the opportunity last week to speak with Austen Weinhart, its cofounder and COO. Sharing the backstory of how Coding Autism came to be, Weinhart noted that cofounder and CEO Oliver Thornton — along with Oliver’s two brothers — had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. He said Thornton always wanted to start a business that would give back to the autism community, and help enable people on the spectrum to find success.
“He came up with the idea for Coding Autism during college, and after graduating, he got in touch with me,” Weinhart said. “I’ve known Oliver all my life — we were childhood friends, and I have some family on the spectrum, as well. I had been working as a web developer and had previously completed a boot camp similar to the one he was trying to create. We saw a lot of ways to collaborate, so we eventually decided to go in on it together as cofounders.”
Weinhart explained there is no fundamental technical difference in how code is taught to people who are and aren’t on the spectrum. He said the difference in Coding Autism’s approach lies in how the students are accommodated and supported on the career preparation side.
“One of the differences is our classes are a lot smaller than similar boot camps — we have a maximum of 15 students per class,” he said. “We also have an occupational therapist on staff who works with the instructor to tailor the class for the specific needs of different learners. Autism manifests itself in different ways. Some people have sensory issues with light or sound, so there are ways that we try to make sure that each class accommodates all of our students.”
Weinhart said Coding Autism also focuses very heavily on soft skills, such as interview preparation and teambuilding.
“A lot of times, the problem with people on the spectrum getting a job isn’t necessarily their technical ability — it’s actually a lot of soft skills, like looking the interviewer in the eye and working with other people as a team,” he said. “We’re selecting students that we feel confident can keep up with the material, and that we can get employed after the program is done. And then we’re also building connections with large companies that either have autism hiring programs, or are willing to hire and train for the specific roles that they’re looking to fill.”
Having written about this topic quite a bit in the past, I’ve learned that there has been a lot of discussion around whether autism should be considered a liability or an asset, so I asked Weinhart for his thoughts on that. He said under the right circumstances, and with the proper accommodation, it can definitely be an asset.
“A lot of conversations that companies are having about diversity also include cognitive diversity, or diversity of input, the idea being that people with different perspectives have unique ways of looking at problems and contributing to a team,” he said. “The stereotype is that people on the spectrum tend to be very direct and very meticulous with detail, which tends to lend itself very well to something like coding. They generally don’t mind repetition, they don’t mind doing things on their own and then coming back together when they need to.”
I found it interesting that Coding Autism has started a crowdfunding campaign to fund itself, so I asked Weinhart why they went that route rather than, say, seeking corporate sponsorships from companies like Microsoft and SAP that have autism hiring programs — and others that don’t, for that matter.
“We’ve been in conversations with some of these companies, too, but the general response that we’ve gotten is, ‘This seems like a great idea, but we want to see an example first,’” Weinhart said. “That’s what we’re crowdfunding for — we’re raising money to pull off a prototype class that we can then use to get sponsorships, so we can say, ‘Hey, we’ve done this, and it works.’”
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.