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Today, it's widely cited that one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. But less discussed in the media is what happens when these children grow up.

report published in April found that young adults with autism had significantly lower employment rates than people with other disabilities. Compared to a 58 percent employment rate of twentysomethings with autism, 74 percent of young people with intellectual disabilities, 95 percent with learning disabilities and 91 percent with a speech impairment or emotional disturbance were employed.

But companies like Freddie Mac and Microsoft are hoping to change the perception of autism as a human capital challenge into an asset. Microsoft recently launched a pilot program for autistic hires, and Freddie Mac launched a program three years ago. Working with a non-profit called the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), the mortgage guarantor giant offers a 16-week internship program to recent college graduates of math and science programs that fall on the autism spectrum.

We talked to Megan Pierouchakos, Diversity Manager at Freddie Mac, about the details and results of the internship program, and how the company is moving beyond traditional approaches to “diversity."

Why did Freddie Mac decide to start a program focused on autism?

The idea for the program came from a member of our diversity leadership team after they read a news article about adults on the autism spectrum as an untapped talent pool for corporate America. We started with a pilot about 3 or 4 years ago when we started partnering with a group called the ASAN.

We noticed, in our work with ASAN, that a lot of adults on the spectrum are unemployed or underemployed, meaning that they don't have a whole lot of consistent corporate experience or any at all. That's due to various reasons, but people on the spectrum also don't tend to interview well. Their interpersonal skills aren't the same as say, you or I, might have, and often times they get overlooked even though they are highly educated and might have multiple advanced degrees.

What has the internal response been to the program?

The program has been really successful, and we have enhanced and upgraded it since the start. Whenever we are featured in any type of article, we always get a few emails from employees that tell us these types of programs reaffirm that Freddie Mac is the right place for them. And more people across the company have stepped forward to say they want to be involved.

We've partnered with our disabilities employee resource group and identified employees that want to be a mentor to adults on the spectrum. Same with the hiring managers that volunteered to get involved with the program. We have offered training to the areas that are taking the interns. So, not only might you have a hiring manager who wants to learn more and do more, but now you have a whole team under them that is being exposed to awareness of this disability.

Through the lifetime of the program, we have converted about 3 in 10 interns into full-time employees, which is really our goal at the end of the day.

Have you found that people on the autism spectrum offer any unique skills?

Freddie Mac is a highly quantitative company. You can imagine the amount of data that we have, and the modeling and analytical work that we do requires a very specific skill set.

Folks on the spectrum are highly focused and tend to enjoy repetitive tasks, or things they can take the same approach to or use a a step-by-step process. Looking for incongruities in data and finding things in patterns that aren't right is another way they excel.

Has the program changed the way you approach hiring and diversity, more generally?

This year and next year we are hoping to use this program as a springboard to additional awareness on disability or sensitivity training. We've done other progressive programs, for example we have offered workshops on introverts versus extroverts. Our autism program is the most advanced, in terms of progress, of our programs on alternative pools of talent.

We most recently started a resource group around military service groups. We see veterans as our next opportunity for talent pools that are generally more difficult to convert into a civilian setting because of differing skill sets. We are trying to see through those differences and find commonalities. [Another opportunity is] women who have left the workforce to care for families and then want to return a few years later.

Photo: Shutterstock