Normal Is Overrated

Musings and meanderings on the autistic spectrum

November 6, 2011

On employment and accommodations: a belated post for Autistics Speaking Day

This year, I was too busy and stressed to post anything on Autistics Speaking Day, despite desperately wanting to.

But there’s a reason I was too busy: I had just begun my first week of work at a full-time job since leaving graduate school. Yes, even in spite of all the employment challenges I’ve mentioned in the past, I still managed to find work in this economy.

And it’s not just any job; it’s a chance to work on something I’m quite interested in. Though my life-long dream of being a contestant on Jeopardy! still remains unfulfilled, I’ve managed to do something that you could say is functionally equivalent.

I feel safe disclosing it at this point, now that I’ve been on the job for a week, so I’ll go ahead and state it: I’m now a research engineer at Nuance Communications, working on the DeepQA project—the software powering the Watson supercomputer that defeated the two reigning Jeopardy! champs—as part of a joint research agreement between Nuance and IBM. (As an aside, to cover all the legal bases: everything I discuss below is my own personal opinion, and I’m not speaking as a representative of either Nuance or IBM.)

And this opportunity wouldn’t have been available without plenty of reasonable accommodation—which is exactly what I wanted to write about for Autistics Speaking Day.

As always, the things which have given me the greatest challenges, both in the application process and in my actual time at work so far, have little to do with the actual technical aspects of the job. Sure, there’s sifting through research-oriented code whose organization tends to be quite messy, and there’s having to learn my way around new application frameworks that I’ve never dealt with before now—but I’ve played around with enough open-source projects that I’ve gotten fairly used to this learning curve.

No, my biggest challenges have involved communication… a rather hilarious irony for someone working for a company whose entire line of products involves natural language processing.

The greatest challenge, by far, has involved that ever-frustrating bugbear of mine, the telephone. In fact, I was quite worried that things would go downhill quickly when I got the first response to my job application, a voice-mail message asking me to call back with no other contact information. But I did call back—from a quiet room, using headphones and a VoIP system to ensure that I could hear things clearly—and I’m glad I did.

Through that call, I obtained an e-mail address through which I could continue my discussion with the recruiter. And from there, the process went fairly smoothly. Initial communication took place via e-mail, which gives me a much better chance to get my words together coherently and lessens the chance that I might mishear something drastically wrongly. Interviews which would normally be held by phone were instead held via Skype, allowing me to hear the questions much more clearly, and in at least some cases, to see the interviewer as well. And before I knew it—much to my surprise, given how several previous job applications had fared!—I received an official offer of employment.

In the intervening time, I found that many things which could have been challenges for me were surprisingly non-issues. I was given plenty of leeway regarding relocation, and allowed to begin my employment via telecommuting, with a combination of e-mail, instant messaging, Skype, and screen-sharing software taking the place of face-to-face meetings. (Given that the development team already straddles the US-Canada border as it is, reaching out virtually to a remote worker in Georgia was not at all difficult to accommodate.) Thus, I have enough time to take a trip up to Boston to get familiar with the environment and find a suitable apartment before I actually have to move in January, rather than being rushed into a new living arrangement too quickly for me to deal with.

As for transportation… it’s a hassle while I’m working remotely, to be sure, but it will totally be a non-issue once I’ve moved. I’ll obviously get a better idea once I actually go up to visit in a week, but from my research online, I can already tell that Boston will be a much more suitable place for a non-driver like me than small-town Georgia. Neighborhoods tend to be much more walkable (even in some suburban areas!), almost everything I need is accessible either on foot or by transit 7 days a week, and I can even get my groceries delivered, thus eliminating the need for many trips to the store.

The only thing I’ve actually found to be remotely challenging so far involves a weekly group conference between Nuance and IBM. Because of various factors beyond our control, these meetings can only be held by phone. And yet, even this isn’t a total challenge; I discovered that I can call through Google Voice on my computer, run the output through a graphic equalizer, and hear things much more clearly—still not as good as Skype, but nonetheless better. (Seriously, why did I not think to try this before?) I probably ought to look into getting an amplified phone with really fine-grained tone control or something. And those things I still manage to miss are clarified fairly well in the meeting minutes that are sent out each week, so even that’s not necessarily an issue.

It honestly surprises me how smoothly my experiences have gone so far—largely because so many past experiences with seeking employment haven’t gone so smoothly. And, in large part, this was because of my new employer’s willingness to make a few simple accommodations.

Filed under: Blog Carnival,General — codeman38 @ 8:57 pm


  1. I am extremely happy for you. Thank you for sharing this update. It gives me a little bit of encouragement for myself.

    Comment by Jude — November 7, 2011 @ 11:48 am

  2. Wow, Watson? That’s really freaking cool!

    I’ve never commented here before (I lurk around a lot of autism blogs), but as an autistic programmer and Jeopardy! nerd I wanted to offer congrats. I’m glad they were willing to make accommodations.

    Comment by Emily — November 7, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  3. Congrats on your new job! Great news. Don’t forget the weather in Boston is really changeable and it gets very cold, so be prepared!

    Comment by Nancy — November 11, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

  4. This sounds incredible! Congrats!! Boston is going to be a million times better for you and I look forward to hearing how it all works out. And *way to go* for sticking in there and finding an employer who was willing to accommodate you!

    Comment by aspieteacher — December 3, 2011 @ 8:48 am

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