Autism spectrum

New, better workers on the autism spectrum

July 23, 2013: 1:47 PM ET

IT firms are making a concerted effort to recruit workers on the autism spectrum, and for good reason.

By Joshua Kendall

FORTUNE -- In May, Ernest Dianastasis, the managing director of Computer Aid, Inc. (CAI), the Delaware Valley's largest IT consulting company, unveiled a surprising initiative: by the end of 2015, individuals with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) would comprise at least 3% of CAI's workforce. "This move is not about advocating for the rights of the disabled," Dianastasis explains. "It's about bringing highly skilled people, who have often been overlooked, into the corporate world."

CAI isn't the first company to make a concerted effort to access this untapped source of brainpower. In May, 2012, Freddie Mac set up a fully paid internship program for undergraduates with autism. "Our interns are terrific workers who are not easily distracted," says Stephanie Roemer, Freddie Mac's Diversity Learning and Recruiting Manager. Though autism impairs social functioning, those on the high-end of the spectrum --still often referred to as "Aspies," even though "Asperger's Syndrome" was removed from the latest edition of psychiatry's bible, the DSM -- typically possess exceptional problem-solving abilities, particularly in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. These employees can stay focused on repetitive tasks for hours at a time; their attention to detail is also remarkable.

America is playing catch-up to the rest of the world in terms of seeking out employees with ASDs. For the past decade, the Danish firm Specialisterne ("Specialists," in English) has been training workers with ASDs and placing them in tech companies in several European countries, including Denmark, England, Ireland, and Germany. CAI is partnering with Specialistinterne, whose head, Thorkil Sonne, has recently moved from Denmark to Delaware. "I've decided to focus full-time on signing up companies in every region of America," says Sonne, who was motivated to get into this line of work because his son is autistic. This summer, Sonne and CAI began training their first cohort of autistics, four of whom are already employed in IT jobs at Delaware's Department of Health and Social Services. By the end of the year, the CAI-Specialisterne collaboration will train about 50 workers, which it plans to place in the departments of two other state governments, a major insurance company, and a Fortune 50 bank, among other organizations.

Specialisterne has also recently landed a prominent European client, the German software giant SAP (SAP). Anka Wittenberg, SAP's chief diversity officer, had been interested in hiring more autistics even before she first crossed paths with Sonne this past January in Davos (Sonne was attending the World Economic Forum's high-powered annual pow-wow as the recipient of a 2012 Social Entrepreneurship Award from the Schwab Foundation). "I have been in HR for over 20 years," says Wittenberg, who works out of SAP's international headquarters in Walldorf, Germany, "and the emphasis has long been on finding team players with good communication skills. But when it comes to what our company does—software testing—autistics are a natural fit." Two years ago, Wittenberg launched the company's first pilot project in India; with Sonne's help, by the end of this year, she plans to place autistic workers in its German headquarters as well as in three North American sites—Palo Alto, Montreal and Vancouver. Moreover, by 2020, as Wittenberg announced in May, she expects that those with ASDs will comprise 1% of its global workforce.

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Politicians are also excited by the idea of employing high-functioning autistics, whom they see as a means to spur economic growth. The Democratic Governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, the head the National Governors Association, served as the matchmaker between Sonne and CAI. Markell first met Sonne two years ago just as he was announcing his Chair's initiative, "A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities." Markell has since gone on to tout the wisdom of Sonne's training program to tech firms all over the country. "America is on the cusp of a sea change," he says. "It's crazy not to hire people with these skills; this is something that it is in the best interest of shareholders."

Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle have also jumped on the bandwagon. Republican Representative Gregg Harper of Mississippi was sensitized to the issue by his son, who has Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in autistic-like symptoms. "People diagnosed with autism are often very, very bright, and with proper vocational assistance, they can be very productive," Harper says. He has recently introduced three pieces of legislation known as the TEAM Act (Transition toward Excellence, Achievement and Mobility), which contain various planks that would be particularly helpful to autistics seeking full-time employment. One key provision would improve the coordination between state educational agencies and state developmental disability agencies.

Likewise, young people with autism figure prominently in the latest reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act put forward by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate committee on health policy. Under the proposed Commissioner's Scholars program, for example, every state would fund graduate education for two autistic students in STEM fields. "We can't afford to have these talented Americans sidelined on the margins of the workforce," says Harkin.

Today, autism is understood to be much more common than previously thought; according to a recent CDC study, it affects 2% of Americans. While those on the more sever end of the spectrum experience difficulty handling eveb basic social situations, those on the high functioning end have far fewer limitations. But those with autism are sometimes inclined to blurt out exactly what is on their mind; alternatively, they can be overly sensitive to noise or other environmental stimuli. As a result, even when members of this high-functioning group succeed in higher education, they can still have trouble finding a meaningful job commensurate with their skills. Ari N'eeman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), who himself suffers from autism, notes that there is widespread unemployment and underemployment among those with ASDs who have college and graduate degrees. "We face barriers of social architecture," he says. "We need the same kind of accommodations that companies have made for those with physical disabilities."

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That's where Thorkil Sonne comes in. His four-week training program prepares autistics for the workplace; while these individuals are initially uncomfortable working with others, under Sonne's tutelage, they learn how to tackle problems as a team. Sonne also advises companies on what managers can do to ease the adjustment. Those with ASDs often need a little extra privacy—say, an office with a door. It is also unrealistic to expect those with autism to engage in chit-chat at the water-cooler or in the cafeteria.

When Sonne pronounced his first four American employees ready for work this summer, Rita Landgraf, the secretary of Delaware's Department of Health and Social Services, welcomed them with open arms. "I have watched Sonne do the training," she says. "It's an excellent program." Landgraf has noticed that autistic workers can often pick up data trends quicker than she can. "From an employer's perspective," adds Landgraf, "my investment is minimal, so the risk is low. And the likelihood of a positive outcome is really high."

Joshua Kendall is the author of America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation

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