News / Calgary

Calgary startup Meticulon looking to hire contractors with autism for specialized jobs

Jay Serdula came to Calgary from Kingston, Ont., hoping to land a job at Meticulon, a local startup looking to break into the field of software test engineering.

After an initial, one-hour interview, Serdula made it to the next phase of the hiring process – a grueling, six-hour series of logic, math, and language tests.

And he loved every minute of it.

“I found it fun,” said Serdula, 41, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 26 and, like many people on the autism spectrum, demonstrates a knack for detail-oriented tasks.

“People with autism have that ability, often, to see problems and errors in a way that we don’t, and enjoy doing that again and again and again,” said Meticulon CEO Garth Johnson, a former executive with stock photography sites Fotolia and iStockPhoto, and father to a son diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

“I’ve always had an interest (in autism),” Johnson said. “I was looking for kind of an overlap, career-wise, between my tech background and this.”

Meticulon, with its staff of four people hired just this summer, currently exists as a sub-project of Autism Calgary, with funding from the Sinneave Foundation and other partners. Johnson said the operation is fully funded for five years, but the goal is to eventually be financially self-sustaining.

The Meticulon model is to recruit people on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum like Serdula – who holds a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and a master’s in physical oceanography – and keep them on staff as consultants to hire out as contractors, largely to software developers but also in other fields like banking.

“I suspect over 90 per cent of the population would give up on that test as soon as you get to the difficult questions. But then again, that’s what makes autistic people different.” – Applicant Jay Serdula on the “symbolic language test” component of the evaluation process at Meticulon

People with autism are often more effective than “neurotypicals” in jobs related to data management, verification, and digitization, Johnson added, yet many remain “massively underemployed” due to their “inability to read social cues.”

That can present challenges in both landing and keeping a job, he said, which is why Meticulon will focus on continuous job coaching for its contractors.

Serdula was the first applicant to go through the testing process, which Meticulon is now undertaking in earnest.

“Our goal is to employ 44 people by the end of year five,” Johnson said. “I actually think we can exceed that.”

Similar companies exist in the United States and Belgium, Johnson added, but Meticulon is "breaking new ground" in Canada.

What is autism, anyway?

Lyndon Parakin has two children on the autism spectrum and serves as the CEO of Autism Calgary, but still struggles to answer when asked exactly what autism is.

“It’s classed a neurological disability,” he said, trotting out the textbook definition. “Neurodevelopmental, actually, is the term that is more often used.”

But, he quickly noted, that answer doesn’t tell the whole story, given the complexity of the disorder and the unique way it manifests in each individual.

“It’s not necessarily an intellectual disability,” Parakin said. “They actually may measure very high in IQ, but they still may have challenges with what the psychologists call executive functioning … some people may become overly focused on details when they don’t need to be.”

Another common manifestation is difficulty understanding social situations, something Serdula said he struggled with as a teenager and young adult, before learning to adapt his initial instincts to better fit in with “neurotypicals.”

“If someone looks fat, you don’t tell them that,” said Serdula. “But (people with autism) don’t follow those rules. They tell the truth.”

Parakin said it’s unfortunate but understandable that a lot of the support systems for people with autism come from a “deficit-based” approach, and he hopes the mindset will continue to evolve.

“Rather than saying a neurodevelopmental disability, we could just talk about neurodiversity,” he said. “That would be a wonderful culture and language.”

Jay Serdula, 41, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 26. He holds two university degrees, has written a book, and swam non-stop across Lake Ontario in 2008 to raise awareness about autism spectrum disorder.
Metro / Robson Fletcher

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