Rise of the autistic workforce
Are we on the cusp of an autistic revolution? German software giant SAP has declared that it intends to gain “a competitive advantage” over its rivals by actively employing people with autism spectrum disorder.
We are seeing the rise of autism, says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in Washington DC and a member of the US National Council on Disability. Indeed, while conditions like autism have historically hindered jobseekers, several global companies have now caught on to the idea of utilising the particular skill set this section of society can offer.
SAP announced last week that it will employ 650 people with autism by 2020. This is approximately 1 per cent of its total workforce, which roughly reflects the frequency of autism in the general population. It will work with Danish company Specialisterne, a consultancy that employs software testers and programmers who have autism.
While the move is a positive one for many, it is important to note that autism exists on a spectrum, and many people who have the condition would not find such jobs suitable. Neither should it diminish the need for more research. It does however signal a greater acceptance of autism within society.
SAP’s move was sparked by successful results from employing a small group of people with autism in India as software testers. It is now expanding its autistic workforce in Ireland, Germany and the US. “People with autism tend to be really good at identifying mistakes and sensing patterns, and turned out to be very good matches for software testing,” says SAP spokeswoman Robin Meyerhoff.
It is the largest company ever to make such an undertaking. Ne’eman calls it a tremendous step forward. “The specific commitment and target for hiring is really quite significant and we hope to see other companies replicate this,” he says.
In fact, SAP is not alone. Ne’eman has worked with US finance company Freddie Mac for the past two years to help it hire interns with autism with a view to creating permanent positions.
Suzanne Richards, Freddie Mac’s vice-president of diversity, says the move has involved figuring out how to adapt the working environment to suit the needs of “this uniquely talented pool of people”. She says that their focus and mathematical ability was very attractive, but that those skills came in a different package. Physical changes to the office environment were necessary, as well as behavioural ones
But employees with autism bring more to the table than good concentration. Benedetto De Martino at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena has shown that people with autism make better decisions than “neurotypicals” when it comes to making a rational choice. They are less swayed by emotion.
People with autism are often able to handle large amounts of information at one time, too. Laurent Mottron, who researches autism at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, says that one member of his group, Michelle Dawson, can handle a huge library of literature. “She has 8000 papers on her computer, and can summarise and compare all of them,” he says. “I can’t handle even a tenth of that.”
Dawson herself says that her research has turned up a whole host of positive autistic traits which are often treated as negatives by default. “This goes against the usual clichés about autistic strengths being predictably narrow and confined to specific areas,” she says.
Mottron agrees that the benefits of autism could be applied to other roles. For example, many people with the condition do not try to rank potential solutions to problems according to plausibility. “Sometimes when you look for a fault in something you can’t have a strategic approach. A counter-intuitive way to solve a problem may be better.”
Society at large benefits when we create workplaces and other social environments which let people make use of what they’re good at, says Ne’eman “instead of focusing on fixing what other people have a problem with”.
“Success in corporate America is really changing,” adds Richards. “Autism is such an opportunity, but unless we foster a very broad definition of success, we’re not going to be able to take advantage of it. And we’d be short-sighted if we didn’t.”