Demand Increases for Autistic Workers

Publicado em 30 de dezembro de 2013

Demand Increases for Autistic Workers

As Awareness of Disorder Rises, More Employers Are Recognizing the Value of Specific Talents


Nov. 28, 2013

Like a comic book superhero, Markus Henk has seen his greatest flaw transformed into a special power. “Whenever I mentioned that I was autistic in a job interview, people immediately closed off,” said the trained electrician. But recently Mr. Henk landed a job because of rather than despite his disorder. “I feel like I am being taken seriously now,” he said.

Mr. Henk embodies what is a growing trend among software and electronics companies: Employing people diagnosed with autism. He joined Vodafone‘s German office in Düsseldorf this spring as an IT specialist, along with three other autistic people.

Weak social skills can make it difficult for autistic people to navigate the job market, but the disorder can also come with specific talents. Numerous studies have shown that some autistic people excel in areas like math, and are good at recognizing patterns. In 2009, the editorial of a special issue on autism in the journal “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” said that “the association of autism with special talent, sometimes at the highest level, cannot be denied.”

As awareness of autism increases and more people are diagnosed with the disorder, companies have sprung up that hire autistic people, match them with employers and offer workplace support. Mr. Henk was hired by the Berlin-based startup auticon in cooperation with Vodafone.

These companies have come into demand as tech giants begin to recognize the value of employing autistic workers for specific tasks. Most recently, software company SAP reached an agreement with Denmark’s Specialisterne to hire several hundred people with the neurological disorder to work as software testers and programmers.

U.S.-based IT services firm Computer Aid Inc. has said it expects autistic employees to comprise 3% of its workforce by 2015.

After decades of marginalization, high-functioning autistic people are being sought as specialists.

U.S. economist Tyler Cowen has a structural explanation for the trend. In a widely cited 2011 paper, he argued that the value of autistic employees’ labor will increase along with the need for specialization in the economy.

People with autism generally have a very specialized skill set. The more developed and specialized the economy gets, Mr. Cowen says, the more valuable the specialized talents of autistic people will be.

People with a neurological disorder in the autism spectrum have difficulty communicating and understanding nonverbal messages. The spectrum ranges from Asperger’s syndrome, which allows people to function well in social situations, to more debilitating autism. It is estimated that 1% of all people in Western countries have some form of autism.

No one knows for sure how many people with autism are employed, but so far the estimates are bleak. In the U.K., for example, the National Autistic Society estimates that 15% of autistic people have full-time employment. In Italy, research institute CENSIS says their employment rate lies below 10%.

Matthias Dalferth of Regensburg University of Applied Social Sciences estimates that in most Western countries only 5% to 6% of all people in the autism spectrum have full-time jobs. For relatively high-functioning people with Asperger’s syndrome, this figure could be as high as 20%. But Mr. Dalferth has already noticed changes.

“Over the past five years more people with autism have found employment, not just in IT but also in other areas such as retail or gardening,” he said. “This is due to increased public awareness and startups like auticon.”

Auticon, founded in 2011, works as an IT-consulting company for high-functioning autistic people. Financed with the help of the Social Venture Fund, it says it will break even by the end of 2013. In addition to Vodafone, auticon works with large clients such as Deutsche Telekom, engineering firm IAV, Bayern LB—the state bank of Bavaria—and others. The company has offices in several German cities, and is considering opening branches in London and Zurich in 2014.

Auticon currently employs 22 people with Asperger’s syndrome, many as software testers. The job requires strong pattern recognition and involves checking complicated source codes for hours at a time. This is the job Mr. Henk does at Vodafone.

Auticon’s business model is inspired by that of Specialisterne, which pioneered the field in 2004 and now has more than 100 employees in 10 countries. The company, which recently opened a new office in the U.S., is expanding rapidly and says it has seen an increase in demand from IT, financial and HR management companies over the past years. One of Specialisterne’s first customers was Danish communications and TV company TDC. “People with autism just deliver better quality,” said Peter Stensler, head of customer sales support in TDC’s consumer division. Eight people with the disorder work as smartphone testers and software developers at the company’s headquarters in Copenhagen.

“They meet on time, they are focused and concentrated, but most importantly they have a special eye for details. They find mistakes other people would overlook,” Mr. Stensler said.

SAP has forecast that autistic people will compose 1% of its workforce by 2020. The company, which employs more than 65,500 people, says autistic employees’ ability to concentrate through long, repetitive tasks makes them particularly valuable in testing and quality control.

After a successful pilot project with autistic software developers in India, SAP has begun another project in Ireland, and is hiring in Germany, where it plans to add eight employees with autism by the end of the year, and in Canada, where it seeks to hire at least seven.

U.S.-based mortgage company Freddie Mac also is interested in the specific skills of people with autism, partly due to their ability to focus and stay concentrated. Last year, the company started offering autistic people paid internships as IT specialists, in cooperation with an autism advocacy group. The company was so satisfied with its first group of autistic interns that it is expanding the program this year.

“We only had to make minimal adjustments at the workplace, like changing lighting,” said a spokeswoman for the company. She added that Freddie Mac won’t not only hire autistic people for IT, but also for quantitative work in other areas like finance.

While SAP, TDC and Freddie Mac say they employ autistic people primarily for their skills, Vodafone says it does so to create a more diverse and productive work environment. The inclusion of autistic employees at Vodafone has improved group dynamics and illustrates the value of inclusive leadership to managers, it says.

That point of view is a blessing for Fabian Hoff, who works for Vodafone as a software programmer. Sitting at his computer, Mr. Hoff is indistinguishable from other colleagues. Like all auticon employees, he can choose when and how long he works, though auticon says autistic employees soon decide to follow a regular schedule.

Before coming to Vodafone, Mr. Hoff attended college, but struggled with the crowds and campus noise, and broke off his studies repeatedly. “I tried a couple of jobs but always had trouble after a while,” he said. “Some of my bosses thought that I was trying to defy their authority. I really had no idea what kind of job I could do.”

Such a history is typical for autistic people, which can make companies reluctant to hire them. Another issue is their direct communication style. “If you ask an autistic person in a job interview what his flaws are, he will list them all. This kind of honesty is—unfortunately—often counterproductive,” said Marc Ruckebier, diversity expert at Vodafone Germany.

Auticon is well aware of the challenges inherent to employing autistic people, and works to smooth the relationship between the employee and the company and co-workers. It provides a job coach, who visits Vodafone regularly to talk with Messrs. Hoff and Henk, and to advise the company about the environment.

If a specialist can’t fit in, auticon offers him an alternative position and sends the company a replacement. In half a year, this happened once: an autistic employee was sent to work, but struggled with the noise coming through thin walls. The employee also had trouble with the requirement to formally check in and out every day. Having to stand in line with other people and answer questions posed by a stranger at the check-in desk was difficult.

“People with autism can get overloaded, making them unable to work,” says the employee’s job coach. “One day I had to take him away from the office, bring him home and calm him down.” The employee was sent back to auticon’s office, where he now works. The company remains an auticon client.

“The expansion of Internet and communication technologies have made it easier for autistic people to find employment,” economist Mr. Cowen said in a phone interview. “Since these technologies are hardly going away, the outlook for the future is positive.”



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