Businesses scrambling for artificial-intelligence talent are tapping an unusual resource: people with autism.
Ernst & Young LLP, Credit Suisse Group AG , Dell Technologies Inc., Microsoft Corp. , DXC Technology Co. and other companies are hiring autistic applicants for AI jobs through neurodiversity programs they have established. EY, a professional services firm, is also advising a dozen Fortune 500 companies on starting similar programs.
Autistic workers are often hyper-focused, highly analytical thinkers with an exceptional proficiency for technology, said several company officials who have hired people on the spectrum. Many are capable of working long hours on repetitive AI tasks, such as labeling photos and videos for computer-vision systems, without losing interest. Others have a high capacity for logical reasoning and pattern recognition, enabling them to systematically develop and test AI models.
Demand is soaring for workers with skills in AI, data science and related areas. CompTIA, a tech trade group, said in June that the IT jobless rate fell to 1.3% in May, a 20-year low, intensifying competition for scarce talent.
Meanwhile, many autistic adults lack jobs. About 42% of autistic students who had special education in high school had no paid job in the first six years after leaving high school, according to a 2015 study by Drexel University researchers.
“Autistic individuals really are a solution for employers who are looking for highly skilled analytical individuals for certain jobs,” said Marcia Scheiner, founder and president of Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, a New York nonprofit that advises companies on setting up autism hiring programs. About 40 to 50 U.S. companies have such programs, Ms. Scheiner estimates.
Companies often find autistic workers through such groups. However, people with autism can be socially awkward and reclusive, meaning that companies need to make some adjustments, Ms. Scheiner said.
EY and DXC, an information-technology services firm, don’t conduct interviews with these hires because autistic people tend to do poorly in unscripted social situations. Instead, both companies have opted for performance assessments that can last several weeks. DXC compensates the job candidates for their time while EY doesn’t.
EY employs about 80 autistic people, more than double the number who worked there a year ago. Previous jobs for recent hires included working as a janitor, pizza deliverer and Uber driver. Their education levels range from high school diplomas to doctorates.
They work across the company’s five U.S. neurodiversity centers of excellence in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Jose and one that opened this summer in Nashville, Tenn.
A 14-member team in Dallas, eight of whom are on the autism spectrum, last year developed an algorithm to automate the generation of EY consulting contracts—producing 2,000 contracts a month and saving the firm about 500,000 work hours a year, said Hiren Shukla, the firm’s neurodiversity innovation leader.
The team also built neural networks to quickly identify potential tax deductions for a client, Mr. Shukla said; the AI system took a mere 12 minutes to process five years of memos, emails and other paperwork.
Ian Nancarrow, a 31-year-old who has Asperger syndrome, a type of autism, joined EY’s Chicago office in January. He has an associate degree in interactive media and previously lived with his parents in Michigan, simultaneously working three jobs: package delivery, fast food and remote beta-testing of electronic products.
Today, he is an EY account support associate, knows six programming languages, and writes code for algorithms that monitor regulatory compliance for the firm.
“I have the ability to learn really well,” Mr. Nancarrow said in a phone interview. “I can basically analyse and iterate what I’ve learned so I can reference it and recall it, from front to back.”
Hiring staff with autism, said Mr. Shukla, “is a business imperative for EY. We don’t look at it as charity or corporate social responsibility.”
Credit Suisse began a neurodiversity hiring program at its Research Triangle Park facility in North Carolina nine months ago. It has two autistic employees, is about to hire a third, and has seven going through a 12-week apprenticeship program, said Rosemary Lissenden, an IT director at the bank. The two hires are developing machine-learning algorithms to improve client service for Credit Suisse’s investment banking business.
“They work intensely,” Ms. Lissenden said. “They spend long hours in intense concentration. Their brains like that sort of work and they don’t get tired.”
One of the workers, Kenneth Clark Johnson, is a robotics engineer in global markets technology process automation and quality control. Mr. Johnson said one aspect of his job is applying machine-learning models to extract and classify data from unstructured emails and attachments to populate a database that is used by traders. Mr. Johnson, who responded to questions by email, said that he brings “a new perspective to my team” and that he works with “exceptional speed and efficiency.”