April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism Spectrum Disorder affects one percent of the world's population, about 3.5 million, or one out of 59 American births according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Autism Society.

Autism Spectrum Disorder encompasses a range of conditions that present challenges with speech, social skills, non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. On the flip side, many people with autism possess unique strengths in other areas that enable them to excel in certain disciplines.

Unfortunately, according to Easter Seals, 80% of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. Consequently, the skills and contributions that they would bring to many companies and to the products and services those companies offer are lost.

To address this untapped resource and to foster a culture of empathy and inclusion, Microsoft — on Autism Awareness Day in 2015 — established its Autism Hiring Program. This year, parallel to its commitment to open sourcing its technologies and tools to create a "Microsoft platform" that companies integrate into their businesses, the company is "democratizing" its Autism Hiring program. The goal is to bring more people with autism to the workforce so that they and the companies they join can achieve more.

Building Empathy into company culture

Microsoft's Autism Hiring Program was designed to circumvent the social interaction challenges of the traditional interviewing process that are a barrier to many people living with autism. Rather than sitting with an interviewer for a set period of time, the Autism Hiring Program is a multi-faceted, multi-day process that allows the strengths of people with autism to shine. This hands-on academy focuses on team projects, skills assessments, and workability. Candidates meet hiring managers, various teams and they also learn about the company.

Initially, the program was most successful with bringing a range of engineers, analysts, and scientists to the company. As the program has evolved, however, so has the diversity of skills that have been added to the company through the program. People with autism are now being hired to more socially interactive roles such as customer support.

Microsoft is making empathy a part of its culture.

Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella, inspired by his personal experiences raising a son with severe Cerebral Palsy, has made empathy, inclusion, and inclusive design an integral part of Microsoft. His passion for making all technology accessible to all people transcends Microsoft, however.

His cross-platform app strategy, platform agnostic cloud strategy, and open source development strategy address the technical side of making technology universally accessible. Bringing to other companies what it has learned about making the workplace and hiring practices more inclusive and diverse addresses the cultural side of making technology universally accessible. A workforce comprised of market representatives is better equipped to produce products, from conception forward, that meet the needs of all people.

Thus, Microsoft's Autism Hiring Program has not only expanded beyond its headquarters origins in Redmond, WA to pilot programs at its campuses in Fargo, ND, and Vancouver, BC, but to other companies looking to adopt the inclusion practices.

Democratizing empathy

Microsoft's Neil Barnett, Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility at Microsoft, said of the Autism Hiring Program expanding to its Fargo, ND and Vancouver, BC sites:

We look forward to seeing the program grow in these regions and continue to expand.

To facilitate the goals of the program beyond Microsoft, the company has become a member of the Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable. This is a group of 16 organizations with strong autism hiring programs that are working "to expand employment opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum." The group also collaborated to create the Autism @ Work Playbook to help other employers begin or expand their inclusive hiring efforts. The Playbook addresses recruiting talent, facilitating the interview process, career development, training and more.

This work is complemented by meetings with hundreds of services providers, employers, and government agencies throughout the year such as the Autism at Work Summit that will be hosted in Redmond, WA by Microsoft in May. SAP will host another later this in the Fall.

Embracing everyone

Many Microsoft enthusiasts have criticized Nadella's cross-platform cloud strategy that places Microsoft and its technology as part of a wholistic cloud-computing platform rather than the exclusive platform approach that made it a success in the past. However, in a world that is "shrinking" and where computing platforms and technologies increasingly overlap, Microsoft is making bold, forward-looking moves. Its strategy to become the industry standard, and reference point for inclusion does the same.

Not only does the cross-company inclusion effort parallel its successful cross-platform strategy, but it pushes the message of empathy and of recognizing the value of people with disabilities. It also provides a structured approach to hiring and supporting people with autism and other challenges that other companies, like its aspirational Surface devices, use as a reference point.

Beyond the altruistic rewards, this level of inclusion has a direct impact on meeting the needs of a diverse market, thus beneficially impacting Microsoft's bottom line. Furthermore, the goodwill, garnered by being viewed as an industry leader for inclusion pays intangible dividends that may affect the company in various beneficial ways.

A vision materializing

Finally, Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft's corporate vice president of worldwide operations said, "My hope for the future is that we won't see this as a program, but instead a natural way of recruiting key talent in our organizations."

We may not be there yet, but as Microsoft "democratizes" its autism hiring practices to other companies, it seems to be well on its way toward her goal.

Jason recommends all these affordable accessories

Hi, I'm Jason Ward, Windows Central's editorialist extraordinaire. I have strong opinions about lots of things, including all the gadgets and hardware I use every day to get work done. I use and approve all the following affordable accessories.

128GB SanDisk microSD card ($20 at Amazon)

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Seagate Expansion 2TB portable external hard drive USB 3.0 ($65 at Amazon)

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