Microsoft partners with University to support people on autistic spectrum in workplace


Elisabeth Neely

Jeanne Kramer (left), an employee of the new Microsoft Lighthouse Initiative, speaks with participant, Ethan Chew (right), at Christopher Hall.

By Min Cheong Kim, Staff Writer

Microsoft is launching its Accessibility Lighthouse Program, an initiative that aims to support University students on the autism spectrum to pursue STEM roles and increase the employment of these students at the company. Microsoft, in partnership with The Autism Program and the College of ACES, is investing $200,000 in the project.

Jeanne Kramer, a speech pathologist, works individually with participants through the Microsoft Lighthouse Initiative. She believes this could be a model for other companies and universities to adopt. She also thinks the University is a good launchpad for the program because of its strong STEM programs.

“University of Illinois is the perfect place for Microsoft to target this because we are strong in our technology and how we prepare people for the fields of technology,” she said.

Linda Tortorelli, the coordinator of The Autism Program at the University, also believes that the University was selected for its highly ranked research and tech curricula.

“Microsoft has identified 16 universities that they have considered major pipelines for their tech jobs and University of Illinois is number one or number two in that pipeline in general for being really well-prepared,” Tortorelli said. “They want to improve the pipeline for people on the autism spectrum because they know they are getting a good technical education.”

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Within the last three years, large corporations such as Microsoft, Chase, SAP and Ernst & Young have begun hiring initiatives for people on the autism spectrum. They recognize that people on the spectrum bring a unique problem-solving perspective.

Additionally, these corporations have identified that traditional hiring practices often exclude people on the spectrum from being successful in these fields.

Tortorelli points out that much of the traditional hiring process is based on socially engaging with your interviewer.

“If you are not being successful with that, you will not get the opportunity to be considered for the employment,” she said. “(People on the autism spectrum) are being left out of even getting past square one in the interview process and they were not tapping into that talent.”

Many individuals on the autism spectrum are comparatively underemployed or unemployed, even when compared to other people who have similar disorders. While many educators have adapted programs to better serve those on the spectrum, the same cannot always be said for employers.

There are a few small liberal arts colleges with similar initiatives, but the University’s project is unique because of its size and emphasis on research and technology.

“We are doing a deep dive to see what is out there nationally and what is already in place on campus,” Tortorelli said. “At the end of the year we will be making recommendations going forward on what it would look like to improve services or access to services for this population. We will pilot interventions to see if it could make a difference and work on the soft skills.”

In the Microsoft Lighthouse Initiative, there are two main parts for participants. First, they work together in group sessions led by local teacher Joan Gorsuch. Then, they individually meet with Jeanne Kramer to identify personal needs and work on those goals.

Gorsuch, a teacher at St. Joseph Middle School, has a business teaching social skills in Champaign. She was recruited to be an employee of the Microsoft Lighthouse Initiative.

“We got together and we talked about, what does it look like to have a conversation? What does it look like to be part of a group and be social?” Gorsuch said.

She teaches participants about emotional regulation, stress reduction and conflict resolution. She also helps students identify why social skills are important and how to implement them not only in their work, but in their lives as well.

“We have found that for many of our students, the more social they can be at work as far as being appropriately social, they have the opportunity to make friends outside of work,” Gorsuch said.

Kramer works with the participants individually to work on skills like organization and executive function, things which Microsoft has noticed employees on the spectrum often have difficulty with.

“I am meeting individually with students to give them strategies to improve things like organization, planning, working in teams, advocating for themselves and a lot of that overlaps with the social things Joan is doing,” Kramer said. “My job is making people able to be efficient and effective in the workplace rather than missing deadlines, advocating for themselves in front of their boss, and perform optimally to get tasks done that they have been assigned.”

The main goal of the Initiative is to be a pipeline for employment between the corporations and the students on the spectrum, but in the process, they are also challenging and trying to change societal norms.

“Globally, one of the things we hope to address and impact is the culture of being able to safely disclose without the fear of discrimination,” Tortorelli said. “We have gotten feedback from students saying that they are afraid of being viewed as incompetent or unable to complete the task.” 

Although the disclosure of being on the autism spectrum may seem taboo, not disclosing the information may actually be counterintuitive.

“For many of our students it has been a double-edged sword, where if they don’t disclose and they do something that is unexpected, they attribute it more to a personality flaw,” Gorsuch said.

This concern was a reality for one of the participants, Ethan Chew, graduate student in Business. Before returning to school, Chew worked for several years in the industry and struggled privately.

“A lot more harm was done because I didn’t want to speak up or acknowledge the need for resource(s),” Chew said. “I only performed my diagnosis in 2016 and engaged in resources in 2017, 2018. Looking at what they could do for me and how I was treated, I wish I would have done that a lot earlier. That is why I am speaking up now rather than keeping quiet to cause another train wreck to happen because no one says anything that I don’t want to say.”

Along with the whole team working on the Initiative, Chew wants society to recognize that people with autism are not that different after all.

“I do not see this as a disability or disorder,” he said. “I see it as a mode of operation. I think in the workplace, people on the spectrum and people who know people on the spectrum have to start recognizing it not as a disorder but as a different modality of your mind working.”

The program runs through June 2019 and is still seeking participants.

“Sometimes the autistic experience is similar to language barriers,” Chew said. “You think and operate in a different language. When you put an English speaker and a non-English speaker in a room together, they have to start building a common language or interaction. The same has to happen between your typicals and autistics.”

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