Flourishing in the Right Environment

An A2W employee shares his talent for problem solving with a large pharmaceutical firm

Jacobus had worked his way up to Senior Technician at a retail chain for batteries and specialty electronics. He was known by everyone across the region’s franchises as the go-to technician; he could fix anything: hardware, phone screens, battery packs.

“I am naturally curious,” says Jacobus, who goes by “Jaco” to those who know him. “So when my parents gave me a screwdriver at age seven, I started disassembling my toys. That’s how I learned about flywheels and circuit boards and everything else. I knew taking things apart meant I had to put them back together, and I learned a lot in the process.” What Jaco didn’t learn by doing, he learned by researching. His co-workers nicknamed him "Jacopedia."

When he maxed out what he could learn in the technician role, he knew he was ready for a new opportunity. But one of the characteristics of Jaco’s autism spectrum disorder is risk aversion, and he wasn’t sure where to start. Anxiety kept him from looking for a new job.

He had dealt with the traditional recruitment cycle before, but that left a bad taste in his mouth. “They bring you in, throw a smorgasbord of options at you to see what sticks, and then you’re on your own. I didn’t want to compete with neurotypical people with a few years of experience for entry-level positions. I wanted to find a program for people on the spectrum who want to transition to a new career.”

So Jaco interviewed with recruiters who work with people on the spectrum, but he was doubtful much would come of it. “They seemed in many ways like any other traditional recruitment agencies. They would say, ‘Here’s your job. Good luck!’”

What Jaco needed was an advocate in the workplace. “Companies are not always sure how to accommodate people who are neurodiverse. For many, it’s easier to hire someone who fits the norm. But, as someone who is neurodiverse, I know I have a unique skillset to offer, and I know that, when provided a chance and the right work environment, I am highly productive.”

That’s when a family member referred him to CAI’s Autism2Work (A2W) program. Jaco saw right away that it provides the support that would allow him to showcase his skills and jumpstart his career in a way that he doubted he could do on his own. He liked that the program deploys teams of qualified adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and provides ongoing skill development, workplace support, and mentorship.

As someone who is neurodiverse, I know I have a unique skillset to offer, and I know that, when provided a chance and the right environment, I am highly productive.

Jaco Vermuelen, A2W associate

After successfully completing the required training for agile development and scrum work, CAI offered Jaco a position as a Quality Assurance (QA) analyst working with a team at a large pharmaceutical firm. When he started, he was learning the three main software applications the team uses: SAP, Worksoft, and ALM. And his ability to learn quickly was evident. Soon he was working at advanced levels and mentoring others on the team. “If I can learn something and then practice it,” says Jaco, “I can absorb it very quickly. You give me a practical situation that has layered requirements, I can learn what I need to do to meet those requirements.”

Jaco believes his specific aptitudes match the job almost perfectly. “People on the spectrum think about situations in a different way,” he says. “We make good analysts because, when we look at data, we find patterns. We love predictability and strive for it, and patterns are predictable. The key thing I bring is a keen attention to detail. If someone brings me a problem, I treat it like a forensic crime scene. That attention to detail really helps when I work on scripts; I can pick out little mistakes that others miss.”

His ability to acclimate quickly caught people’s attention. “Jaco is confident, knowledgeable, and dedicated,” says his A2W Team Lead Rory O’Brien. “He excels at discussing the task, identifying potential risks, and adjusting his work accordingly. He always delivers high quality, highly technical work on time.”

Now Jaco is the team expert on Worksoft, which the pharmaceutical client uses to automate QA testing. He writes scripts so the computer can run tests for the team without human input. “I am a relentless researcher. I do whatever it takes to find an answer. I love this job because it offers me a lot of opportunities to solve problems. People come to me when they can’t find a solution.”

His A2W Team Lead – and the advocate Jaco looks to for professional support – says Jaco knows something about everything. “Whether it is the arts, music, history, computers, or video games – he has the ability to explain it like a college professor,” says Rory. “In the times of COVID-19, when everyone is isolated, a conversation with Jaco makes you feel connected. There’s something special about that, and it’s why it makes him an integral part of the team.”

Jaco says working with A2W is the reason he’s on a new career path. “Getting to work with others on the spectrum makes it feel easier to fit in. It removes a lot of stress that people like me experience in other environments.” He also says the program has given him an opportunity to show off his strengths in a workplace that understands the power of neurodiversity. “I showed an ability to learn quickly and adapt to a new situation,” he says. “And that is what is prized.”

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