How I thrive in the right environment

By Jacobus Vermuelen | November 17, 2020
Jacobus Vermuelen

I am and have always been a naturally curious person. When my parents gave me a screwdriver at age seven, I started disassembling my toys. That’s how I learned about flywheels, circuit boards, electronics, and everything else. Taking things apart means that you must put them back together, and I learned a lot in the process. What I can’t learn by doing, I learn by researching. I am a tenacious researcher. I do whatever it takes to find an answer.

When I got a job at a retail chain for batteries and specialty electronics, it didn’t take me long to work my way up to Senior Technician. I became known across the region’s franchises as the go-to technician. People would come to me to fix nearly anything: hardware, phone screens, battery packs. My former co-workers nicknamed me “Jacopedia.”

I got to a place in that role where I felt that there wasn’t any room for growth and I wanted a change. I wanted to do something different, but anxiety has been a problem for me for a long time. It has kept me from looking for jobs outside of the ones I am currently employed in. Coupled with depression, it has made starting new things extremely difficult.

I had dealt with the traditional recruitment cycle before and the experience had left a bad taste in my 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.

I interviewed with recruiters who purported to work with people on the spectrum, but they left me doubtful that much would come of that either. In many ways, they seemed like traditional recruitment agencies. They would say, “Here’s your job. Good luck!”

I knew that I had a unique skill set to offer. When provided a chance and the right work environment, I am highly productive.

I was just about at the end of my rope when I heard about CAI’s Autism2Work (A2W) program. After a couple of phone calls, I was convinced that the program would allow me to use my skills and further my career in a way that I wasn’t sure I could on my own. What sets this program apart from others is:

  • A2W employs adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, making sure they are carefully matched with meaningful work.
  • An A2W team lead works alongside the team to train, mentor, supervise and advocate for team members.
  • The program is structured so team members are constantly developing new skills and challenging themselves.

That was what I was looking for: A safe work environment that would provide me with room to grow.

After I went through agile development and scrum training, CAI offered me a position as a Quality Assurance (QA) analyst working with a team at a large pharmaceutical firm. Right away, I started learning three software applications: SAP, Worksoft, and ALM. It was an ideal environment for me because, if I can learn something and then practice it, I can absorb it very quickly. When you give me a practical situation that has layered requirements, I can learn what I need to do to meet those requirements. Before long, I was working at advanced levels and mentoring others on the team.

When it comes to QA work, I believe that my neurodiversity gives me an advantage. People on the spectrum perceive situations differently. We make good analysts because, when we look at data, we find patterns. We love predictability and strive for it, and patterns are predictable. My key contribution 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.

It was my ability to acclimate quickly that caught people’s attention. Now I am the team expert on Worksoft, which we use to automate QA testing so the computer can run tests without human input. One reason I love this job is that it offers me a lot of opportunities to solve problems. It scratches that problem-solving itch. That and this job offers me a lot of opportunities to research and learn.

A2W is the reason I’m on a new career path. It has given me an opportunity to show off my skills in a workplace that understands the power of neurodiversity. Getting to work with others on the spectrum makes it easier to fit in. It removes a lot of stress that people like me experience in other environments. It’s a place that recognizes my strengths and values them for what they are.

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