“Hiring autistic people solves many problems. It allows their skills to be utilized and takes a burden off the system,” Steve Andrews
By Debra Muzikar
Last month, I had the pleasure to interview Steve Andrews, founder of Platinum Bay Technologies. Over a cup of coffee he shared his story and laid out his model for employing autistic techies.
Steve, 38, grew up in the 1980’s. An alert and curious baby, he had trouble physically bonding with his mom, becoming rigid when held. In school, he had trouble fitting in and following rules. His first grade teacher wrote “he ignores peers, prefers to play alone and sees other students as if they were objects.” Although the social dynamics of school were confusing for Steve, he excelled in academics. “My mom taught me Algebra in Third Grade,” Steve says.
In Middle School, his social difficulties became more apparent. He was beaten up and bullied for his differences. He had no friends.
Steve’s mom, who has a Master’s Degree in nursing with a focus on maternal child and early childhood development, was distressed by her son’s struggles. She watched as Steve became more and more depressed and anxious. Together they visited many specialists. “ I had no friends. I had trouble conforming. I had a ton of blood tests, EEGs, and visited countless doctors,” Steve says. “I felt there was something fundamentally wrong with me.”
Steve made his first friend in High School and also discovered technology. “I was attending a Quaker High School which had a state of the art Macintosh Lab.”
“My parents bought me a Mac in ‘92 for Christmas when I was 14. I became addicted,” Steve spent hours in his room immersed on his Mac.
Steve’s teen years were traumatic. Still struggling in school and at home, he dropped out of high school at age 16. “School was boring for me. I didn’t feel challenged. I was having problems at home as well. After I dropped out I worked many different jobs. I was a chef, drove a tow truck, worked in maintenance and security.” His passion for technology continued. When not working he spent many hours on his Mac teaching himself programming.
“My first tech job was working for someone who tried to sell me Amway. He had a technology company and hired me. This allowed me to list programming as a skill on my resume and led to a junior level programmer job at a tech company.” Steve became a Microsoft developer and a four-time Microsoft MVP. “I made many friends through my passion for technology. Making friends through a shared interest is a natural way to make friends. I developed my public speaking skills talking about technology.” Since 2009, Steve has racked up over 130 speaking engagements.
Although immersed in all things related to computers, Steve had trouble working in a traditional work environment. Just like his prior difficulties in school, the social nuances of the work environment were confusing. He had trouble conforming to the politics of the work place. Steve continued to wonder about his difficulties. He came across articles about Aspergers on the internet and took the AQ self test. “I took the test about 40 different times and each time I scored 39 – 42 (32+ is the official criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome).” He compiled a list of his Asperger traits and took them to a therapist.
“The therapist diagnosed me in the first session,” Steve recalls. After his diagnosis Steve experienced a profound sense of relief. “It was a defining moment in my life. I realized I’m not alone. I’m not broken. I simply process the world differently I spent 33 years of my life feeling broken, invalidated and worthless.”
Steve stresses the importance of the diagnosis and the label. “Some parents say they don’t like labels. I don’t agree with keeping labels from children. You wouldn’t keep the label diabetic away from your diabetic child and say they don’t need insulin. Autism is no different. As soon as a child is capable of understanding, they will know they are different. Just as a diabetic needs insulin, an autistic child needs accommodations … The label gave me knowledge and self-awareness. It allowed me to be kinder to myself. Before my diagnosis my internal dialogue was brutal. There is a reason the autism-suicide rate is so much higher compared to the general public.”
Steve states Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has helped him with his internal dialogue and his given him techniques to recognize the emotions he is feeling. He now has a girlfriend who is also on the autism spectrum. “People on the spectrum understand each other. We understand our unique sensory challenges and when we need space.”
For the last five years Steve’s new passion has become autism. Steve is in the process of writing a book about a different paradigm of autism – a grand unifying principal. He believes many of the classic books about Aspergers are outdated. “We must get away from the medical model. Most stories happen with our strengths and passions. We must teach through the child’s strengths.”
Steve has started a software products and service company – Platinum Bay Technologies. Through this company he is creating a platform to hire autistic adults solving a major problem. The current unemployment rate of autistic adults is in the 80 – 90 percent range. “You can’t be a successful entrepreneur unless you are solving a problem,” Steve states.
“I’m designing a work environment where autistic people can be successful. It is not enough that autistic people may be good at technology. They need accommodations. Everyone from my company will work at home or where they feel most comfortable. I’m going to hire autistic therapists and train them to be project managers. They will be the road-block clearers who keep the distractions away. They will also help our employees with executive functioning – time management, organization, asking questions.”
Steve believes companies must change their ways to accommodate neurodiversity in the work place. “In order for a win win to happen companies have to make accommodations. Hiring autistic people solves many problems. It allows their skills to be utilized and takes a burden off the system.”
Steve looks beyond functioning labels. “Low functioning people have hidden strengths. High functioning people have hidden struggles. I want to hire non-speakers. Many companies refuse to hire non-speakers. What I care about is that the people I hire are smart, they can get the job done, and they have a passion for their work.”
Since starting Platinum Bay Steve has received a steady stream of resumes from autistic adults. He has also become a sought-after public speaker about Autism speaking to companies, educators, therapists, and parents. He is as passionate about autism as he is about technology.
Steve Andrews will be participating in the panel of autistic adults at the town hall sponsored by Keri Bowers and The Art of Autism on February 2 in Agoura Hills. You can reserve your seat here.
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