People with autism frequently have a difficult time socially: they don’t always pick up on social “cues” most of us take for granted such as vocal inflections, facial expressions, gestures and maintaining eye contact. In terms of finding suitable jobs, this can be an obstacle. However, there are entrepreneurs who actively seek out the autistic as employees.
Thorkil Sonne of Denmark is the founder of a software testing company, Specialisterne. His company
uses their special skills to out-perform the market and offer an often isolated group of people opportunities for active, productive lives. Attention to detail, precision, and unerring focus are qualities that come bundled with the disabilities of autism and make autistic people particularly adept in certain fields. Autistic individuals have markedly different vocational needs than other developmentally disabled people, and Thorkil is providing a working environment where their skills are capitalized upon and it is “normal” to have autism.
In order to accommodate these employees, Sonne has invested in creating an office atmosphere that supports their special needs. For instance, emphasis is placed on giving clear instructions, limiting stress and long hours, and a highly structured environment.
A German software company, SAP, also seeks out the autistic for work, saying they have a unique talent for the highly-focused work of information technology.
Amelia Schabel, a 23 year old with Asperger’s (considered to be a “high-functioning” form of autism) is one person who has found a place in the high-tech industry. She describes her struggles socially:
“I can look someone in the eye and talk to them,” she says, “but if someone treats me in a way I don’t think I deserve to be treated, I’m not going to react well. I may lash out, I may not speak to them, I may just glare.”
Schabel is now studying visual arts at the nonPareil Institute in Plano, Texas.
Dr. Patricia Evans, a neurologist at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, says people on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum often have an amazing ability to hyper-focus on a task.
“They may really flourish at engineering-type tasks or computer design, where their interaction with people is somewhat limited,” Evans says.
Thorkil Sonne is quick to point out that these are not “pity” jobs, created to help handicapped people. He believes the autistic truly excel at this type of work, and his company relies on their skills.
He is quick to dismiss any suggestion that “charity,” “cheap labor,” or “sheltered workplace” considerations should be taken into account in decisions to use his company’s services. He doesn’t fail to note, however, that Specialisterne’s employees are unusually focused in repetitive testing assignments, and that their fault rate in data conversion is 0.5 percent, compared with a typical 5.0 percent fault rate in other firms engaged in performing data conversion.
Entrepreneurs are known for innovative thinking and creative solutions to problems. By tapping into a unique workforce, they are not only able to solve issues within their industry, they are creating pathways for people who might otherwise be seen as unemployable, maintaining the dignity of those people and capitalizing on their talents. This is a exactly how business is supposed to work: finding the best people for the jobs, regardless of how those people may be labeled.