San Diego

Inspiring San Diego: Tech Program Provides Career Breakthroughs for Adults with High Functioning Autism

“If you stop looking at the differences and you look at the potential, you'll get the benefit,” Stephen Kay's boss said.

Monday through Friday, Stephen Kay arrives at his job as a quality assurance tester at Qualitest and gets to work looking for problems.

Kay, 30, and his team of coworkers test a wide variety of software ranging from medical equipment to the latest Android and Apple apps for companies around the world.

They look for glitches, making sure the software does what it’s supposed to.

This full-time job is a dream come true for Kay because he’s an adult living with high-unctioning autism and the road to employment hasn’t been easy.

“I have Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD and Turret's,” Kay said. “Some people associate autism or learning disabilities with some kind of brain damage or lack of intelligence. That’s not the case at all.”

Kay graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University with a degree in computer science in 2013. In the years that followed, he applied for countless jobs but came up empty.

Stephen Kay Inspiring San Diego

"If you do that for months at a time it can just be crushing,” he said. “Three or four years of not getting anywhere, it’s pretty depressing.”

Kay said the ratio of jobs he applied for to interest he received from potential employers was astronomically low.

"It was probably it was less than a 1 percent thing," he said. "Probably closer to maybe a thousand to one."

Kay had to wait until November of 2018 for his employment breakthrough, which came with the help of a relatively new Technical Training Program developed by the National Foundation for Autism Research called NFAR Tech.

Chelsea Asaro, Outreach Specialist with NFAR Tech, said Kay’s story is familiar for many people living with autism. And she said the obstacles individuals with high-functioning autism face leaves a startling number of them unemployed.

"The unemployment rate for people with autism is 85 percent,” she said. “And that's even higher for people with high-functioning autism. The people who are least impacted and have the most skills also have the least access to services that will help them to transition to work.”

Asaro said every year between 600 and 800 students with some form of autism graduate from San Diego County high schools.

“That’s like the size of an entire high school class coming out of San Diego high schools ready to take that next step,” Asaro said. “So what does the outlook look like for them right now? It’s really not very good.”

So far, NFAR Tech has trained more than 100 people through its seven-month software testing program. Students of the program are taught technical skills needed to be an entry-level tester and are also prepared to pass an industry-recognized certification exam (ISTQ).

Asaro is especially passionate about the program because she is also the mother of an adult living with High Function Autism. Her son has graduated from the NFAR Tech program and is now working as a software tester in Los Angeles.

Asaro said in many cases, the population she works with is uniquely suited to do this type of work. That’s because many people with high functioning autism are extremely attentive to detail, hyper-focused and dedicated to their work.

“They like to do things repeatedly and to have expected results,” she said. “And they really find it soothing and comforting.”

Asaro said a recent graduate of her program told her that he can spot errors in code like “Like it's written in neon, like it's a neon sign.”

In addition to the technical training, NFAR Tech trains students in interpersonal skills that help them during the job screening process.

“These are things that don't come as naturally to them as the technical aptitude does,” Asaro explained. “They are things like interview skills, workplace attire, email etiquette and time management.”

Asaro says the biggest hurdle along the path to employment for adults with high-functioning autism is the interview process, which is why the unemployment rates for this group of people is so high.

Part of Asaro’s job with NFAR Tech is helping employers like Qualitest understand how to look past applicants’ social shortfalls and instead see opportunity in adding people with specialized skill-sets to their workforce.

Elle Gee, Vice President of Delivery at Qualitest, said, “If you look past the interview process, you'll add value to your team. The challenges facing Stephen were the challenges facing any new tester. The issues that came up, the training we needed to do, we would provide for any of our new people. So we really didn't need to do anything different.”

Gee said Kay was integrated into Qualitest’s team as quickly as any other new member.

“That has inspired us to the potential of other recruits coming from the [NFAR Tech] program,” Gee said.

The program was one of NBC Universal's 2018 Project Innovation Grant award winners.

Kay said the opportunity to be a full-time employee in the tech industry has given his life new direction.

"It's like I can finally start being a working member of society,” he said.

Gee said she’s hopeful other companies will be open-minded about hiring graduates of the NFAR Tech program.

“If you stop looking at the differences and you look at the potential, you'll get the benefit,” she said.

The program is increasing awareness in the community and helping leaders in the tech industry understand how valuable people like Kay can be in the workplace.

“I really would like other companies to understand that people with autism have real strengths to bring to the workplace,” Asaro said. “I think that people should look to hire people with Autism not just because it's a good thing socially to do, but also because it's a good return on investment.”

NFAR Tech develops partnerships with tech companies like Qualitest for both internships and job placement. If your business is interested in partnering with the program or hiring someone with autism, click here

NFAR is hosting its 15th annual Race for Autism on April 6. The race raises money to help support programs like NFAR Tech.

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