Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

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Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby Spacemilk » Tue Oct 13, 2009 2:37 pm UTC

Article

Text of the article:
Spoiler:
When Thorkil Sonne was told that his three-year-old son had autism, the Danish IT specialist ran the classic gamut of responses for parents of an autistic child, from anger that a doctor could burden his happy boy with the label of a lifelong disability, to a desire to learn everything about the condition.

Few, however, go so far as to embark on a one-man mission to revolutionise society’s isolating attitude to autistics by setting up a company staffed almost entirely by sufferers that has some of the world’s biggest corporations, including Microsoft and Cisco Systems, queuing to buy its services.

Specialisterne, which has a turnover of £2m and employs more than 40 people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Denmark, is set to open its first international operation in Glasgow early next year as a test run for an expansion strategy which would see people with ASD working as IT consultants world wide.

The Independent understands that funding could be granted for the scheme next month, paving the way for the first company in Britain which not only predominantly employs autistics but uses the strengths of its staff – phenomenal levels of numeracy, concentration and memory – to beat off rivals in one of the world’s most competitive industries.

Inspired by the talents of his son Lars, who once stunned his father by reproducing from memory a road map of Europe, Mr Sonne set up Specialisterne (Specialists in English) six years ago, concerned at the exclusion from the workplace of people with autism and realising that the traits of “high functioning” autistics were in demand among computer software companies.

Mr Sonne, 49, a father of three, said: “I wanted Lars [to have] the same chances as his brothers. When you say autism most people think of the film, Rainman, and the common perception is that anyone with such a condition is unemployable.

“I came to realise this was very far from the truth. As long as someone with autism could feel comfortable in a workplace and have the social confidence to perform a job then they would have skills that made them more capable than others to perform certain tasks which required large degrees of precision, focus and memory recall.”

After remortgaging his home and recruiting six employees with the version of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, Mr Sonne persuaded his previous employers, the Danish communications company TDC, to grant him a contract testing mobile phone applications and games.

When it became clear that the team could repeatedly test the software at a level which “generalists” – Mr Sonne’s term for people without ASD – could not sustain, demand for Specialisterne’s services and its “consultants” took off. The company was employed to test the Danish version of Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Centre and its client list ranges from CSC, a global IT services company, to Nordea, Scandinavia’s largest bank.

Among the techniques Specialisterne has perfected is the use of a complex form of Lego to assess the abilities of potential employees, whose condition means the social interaction of a formal interview is often impossible.

Mr Sonne said: “This is not about offering cheap labour or some kind of occupational therapy. We charge market rates, our consultants receive a market salary and that is because they simply do a better job. If you have a piece of software that needs repeated testing, a student being paid to do in Britain or India is going to get bored and lose concentration at the fifth or sixth attempt.

“Our consultants relish the challenge of that repetition and they can spot anomalies in a large amount of data that others would struggle to spot. We cannot be perfect but our error rate is 0.5 per cent compared to the five per cent for other testers.”

The company counters any concern that it is ghettoising its workers by pointing out that 70 per cent of its staff work on the premises of the client. A Specialisterne support worker ensures that the most suitable environment – a lack of sudden and loud noise, clear instructions and an average working week of around 25 hours – is provided by the host.

It is a recipe for success (the company made a profit of £100,000 last year which was ploughed back into the charitable foundation that owns Specialisterne) that Mr Sonne intends to repeat in Scotland. It is understood that software and data-inputting companies north of the border have already expressed interest in the company’s services.

The National Autistic Society (NAS), which is working with the Danish entrepreneur and other bodies in Scotland to set up the venture, said the company’s groundbreaking techniques could be a vital tool to help people with autism into work. Research to be released by the charity this week shows that 80 per cent of autism sufferers who receive incapacity benefit would like to work. Just 15 per cent of Britain’s 500,000 autistics are in full-time employment.

Raemond Charles, of the NAS, said: “There is a vast pool of untapped potential out there which we are simply missing. A branch of Specialisterne in the UK would be a very important step in opening up the work place to people with autism.”

In the meantime, Mr Sonne said that if proof were needed of the benefits of his company’s work then look no further than his staff. He said: “I have seen people transformed. One of our consultants had not worked for 24 years. Now he is testing for Cisco Systems. He finally feels he is part of society and respected. He can talk up at family gatherings. He recently got a girlfriend. Lars wants to work for us as a trainer. I see no reason why eventually those who are at lower points in the autistic spectrum should not work as well.”


This sounds pretty cool to me. To be honest, my initial reaction was anger because it sounded like they were exploiting autistic people. I'm not sure how I got that very incorrect impression, but that's not the case at all. Instead, this consulting company uses the skills of autistics - "phenomenal levels of numeracy, concentration and memory" - to do tasks which require repetition and memory skills. They've tailored their interview process for autistics, who don't have the social skills to engage in a "normal" job interview.

Basically it's a cool story about a company that has turned a so-called disability - which might normally prevent a sufferer from getting a job and thus living an independent, self-sustaining life - into a high-demand job skill.

Personal note: I used to babysit for an autistic girl, which is why this story put a huge grin on my face.
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby apeman5291 » Tue Oct 13, 2009 2:57 pm UTC

Have you read The Speed of Dark? The main character and narrator is autistic and the central plot revolves around this very situation. It's a really good read; Moon's child is autistic so the voice and point of view are spot-on.

It's really cool that companies are actually doing this, though. High-functioning autistics can contribute greatly to society, and it's about time we realized that.
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby The Reaper » Tue Oct 13, 2009 4:24 pm UTC

Sounds like the people that make barriers in "Ghost in the Shell".

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby Vaniver » Tue Oct 13, 2009 4:59 pm UTC

The autistic (autists?) have been in high demand in engineering fields for some time; this company is new mostly in that it advertises what it is.
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby MrGee » Tue Oct 13, 2009 5:05 pm UTC

uses the strengths of its staff to beat off rivals


Hur hur hur...


This is going to do terrible things for the stereotype of programmers as social inept recluses :( But I support it anyway.

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby Woxor » Tue Oct 13, 2009 5:13 pm UTC

Reminds me of "A Deepness in the Sky," by Vernor Vinge. They had this virus called "Focus" that would basically turn people into autistic geniuses, and it was used to enslave other worlds, etc.

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby Spacemilk » Tue Oct 13, 2009 5:58 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:The autistic (autists?) have been in high demand in engineering fields for some time; this company is new mostly in that it advertises what it is.

I'm a part of a recruiting team for the engineering division of my firm (no, it's not my primary job, it's something I do right around this time of year as an "extracurricular activity" to my normal work responsibilities), and I can tell you right now that most of the engineering firms in the U.S. put a lot of weight on social skills and personability during job interviews, even computer engineering firms. As part of my recruiting work I refer candidates on to various divisions, such as IT, process design, facilities design, global services... in all of these divisions, they list "personability/ability to interact well in a social/business setting" as one of their top three candidate traits. My company is consistently top 5 in the Fortune 500; if you guess who we are I'll tell you if you get it right. ;)

I have never heard of anything like what's mentioned in this article. This situation is highly unique - or, at the very least, it would highly unique if it were taking place in the U.S. In short: Based on my practical experience, I do not agree with you at all, if you are making a comment about workplaces in the U.S. I don't know anything about recruiting in Europe.

[/anecdote off]

This is going to do terrible things for the stereotype of programmers as social inept recluses

They can still be social recluses, but they'll be able to hold down a steady job without going outside their comfort zone. :) No stereotypes "ruined" at all!
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby Vaniver » Tue Oct 13, 2009 6:19 pm UTC

I'm a part of a recruiting team for the engineering division of my firm (no, it's not my primary job, it's something I do right around this time of year as an "extracurricular activity" to my normal work responsibilities), and I can tell you right now that most of the engineering firms in the U.S. put a lot of weight on social skills and personability during job interviews, even computer engineering firms. As part of my recruiting work I refer candidates on to various divisions, such as IT, process design, facilities design, global services... in all of these divisions, they list "personability/ability to interact well in a social/business setting" as one of their top three candidate traits. My company is consistently top 5 in the Fortune 500; if you guess who we are I'll tell you if you get it right.
I may have overstated the case; all sorts of engineering are becoming more and more team oriented. I would state that's the cause of better management and an increased supply of engineers- engineers that work well together in a supportive environment will get more done, but there's always been and will probably always will be a place for talented people with minimal or extremely formalized social skills- most likely at start-ups and other smaller companies.
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby EMTP » Tue Oct 13, 2009 7:06 pm UTC

The pioneer here is Dr. Temple Grandin, whose books, (most recently "The Way I See It") describe how she used the insight of her autistic brain to achieve success as an inventor and a livestock consultant. She's an amazing individual -- I thought of her frequently during the campaign last year, because she was the person that made me realize that greatness has the quality of during weaknesses into sources of strength (just as Obama seemed at times to draw strength from being the first African-American nominee for president, so much that you could forget what a phenomenal handicap that should have represented.) I would read her books, read about her amazing accomplishments, and think, "Gosh, I could have made something of myself if only I had been born autistic."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_Grandin
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby MrGee » Tue Oct 13, 2009 9:31 pm UTC

And of course there's the million dollar question: can you give someone super memory without making them autistic?

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby The Reaper » Tue Oct 13, 2009 9:38 pm UTC

MrGee wrote:And of course there's the million dollar question: can you give someone super memory without making them autistic?

One Day....

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby Amarantha » Wed Oct 14, 2009 3:06 am UTC

It would be nice to see this idea expanded into a service that advocates for autistic people to get all kinds of jobs without having to go through the interview process. Plenty of jobs don't require interview skills for good work performance, but do require interview skills to get hired in the first place. So the system favours the socially adept, who can sell themselves regardless of whether they're the best person for the job.

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby negatron » Wed Oct 14, 2009 5:12 pm UTC

This means we should give tax benefits to mothers who agree to genetically alter their ovums to be autistic.
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby The Reaper » Wed Oct 14, 2009 5:23 pm UTC

negatron wrote:This means we should give tax benefits to mothers who agree to genetically alter their ovums to be autistic.

FOR SCIENCE!!!!!

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby BoomFrog » Thu Oct 15, 2009 2:28 am UTC

Just by existing and making a profit this company is advocating that idea. This is exactly how management strategies change. One company proves it works and then others copy them. This man is making a huge step to improving the lives of all autistics in the future. Kudos to him.
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby folkhero » Thu Oct 15, 2009 2:53 am UTC

Does this mean that all the anti-vax nut cases that think vaccines cause autism will let their kids get vaccinated now?
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby The Utilitarian » Thu Oct 15, 2009 4:04 am UTC

negatron wrote:This means we should give tax benefits to mothers who agree to genetically alter their ovums to be autistic.

Actually that might be a bit of a misnomer, as there's a lot of indication that autism of the savant variety, rather than being genetic, is the result of a combination of pre-natal environmental factors. Essentially since the two hemispheres of the brain develop at different rates, a neurotoxic effect (such as a testosterone spurt) could effectively damage the still forming left hemisphere, while not effecting the right hemisphere, which "settles" faster. You combine this with a pre-mature birth, which effectively prevents the developing brain from recieving the right triggers to kill off the "excess" neurons which normally die in the last stages of development. The end result is someone with a damage Left hemisphere, and an excess of neurons in the right hemisphere. Without competition from the left, the right hemisphere over-develops.

Still just a theory of course but there's a lot of evidence mounting for it. Premature births are extremely common in savants, and the large majority are male.

(Just recalling from my psych lecture on the subject from last week, don't have my citations handy)
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby Amarantha » Thu Oct 15, 2009 4:32 am UTC

folkhero wrote:Does this mean that all the anti-vax nut cases that think vaccines cause autism will let their kids get vaccinated now?
Nope. Their problem is usually that their child can't give them the affection they crave, so they need something to blame. The child's future job prospects are not relevant to their cause.

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby BlackSails » Thu Oct 15, 2009 4:38 am UTC

Amarantha wrote:
folkhero wrote:Does this mean that all the anti-vax nut cases that think vaccines cause autism will let their kids get vaccinated now?
Nope. Their problem is usually that their child can't give them the affection they crave, so they need something to blame. The child's future job prospects are not relevant to their cause.


Their problem is by and large that they are idiots.

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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby PatrickRsGhost » Fri Oct 16, 2009 2:55 am UTC

I like this article. While I have never been clinically or professionally diagnosed with autism or Asperger's Syndrome, I had been doing some reading up on it and found myself saying "yes" to a lot of the traits commonly found among autists and Aspies.

My job is almost perfect for someone with autism or Asperger's. A lot of repetition is involved, and attention to detail is critical in several situations, which is a major strength of autists and Aspies. For example, part of my job involves coloring and very advanced connect-the-dots. I have to look for every point listed in the description, make sure every point is there, and then color with the appropriate color(s) the acquisition area. Each type of acquisition has its own color.

When preparing the files for closing, I have to make sure certain documents are in the file, and placed in a particular order. If a document is missing, I either reprint it (if possible) or ask the negotiator who had the file where the document is, especially if it's one that should have been signed by the property owner. There are some documents that we allow to slide by without being signed or filled out, since we can ask them to do so at closing.

I have a very peculiar way of how things are worded in our offer packages, and how things are lined up. If someone else does it, and does it differently, I get upset. Especially if I've trained them to do it the way I wanted them to do it, and they still do it their own way, I sometimes feel like knocking them upside the head. It really doesn't matter how it's done, as long as it looks neat, but I am very peculiar about how things are worded, and when it comes to doing the plats, how they're positioned on the pages.

I am also very organized at work. I have a separate basket for just about everything I usually do. I have signed over each one, indicating what goes where, and if there are certain things I need the agents to do, I have it on those signs as well, like putting stickies on the file, telling me if the file is waiting on this or that to be signed or approved by someone. Most of the agents have learned to do this, but there are still one or two that need some extra encouragement (grabs baseball bat).

I think that's why I've managed to stay at my present company for as long as I have (7 years and some months). They've told me what needed to be done, shown me the basics on how to do it, then left me to my vices to do it in a way that I saw fit. When I first came on board, everything was being done in a way that I thought was wrong. It may have looked fine to the person before me, and to the agents and the boss, but it didn't to me. A few tweakings over the years brought it to what it is now, and as each twerking passed, the boss I started with and the agents came around and saw how much better it was now than it was before. Even today the new boss is amazed at how things are better, when I came back from the satellite office and after a few changes at the beginning of this year, brought the department back around to what it was when I left. Now there had been some more changes about a month ago, so we're still twerking.
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Re: Autism becomes an asset in the workplace

Postby BlackSails » Fri Oct 16, 2009 2:57 am UTC

This is a great idea, but its a very thin line between helping people with autism and exploiting them.


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