Autistic? Come work for us! says software firm

Autism on stage: Luke Treadaway in ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’.

Most people with autism are capable of work and keen to find it, yet prejudice stands in their way. Now a German technology company wants to tap this neglected talent.

If you are talented and committed, getting a job should not be an insurmountable challenge. But for the one percent of people who suffer from an autistic spectrum disorder, competence and hard work are often not enough. In Britain, 85% of people with autism cannot find full time work, while over a quarter of graduates with the condition are unemployed.

Why? Not because autism makes a person unfit for regular work: although severe forms of the condition make it difficult to cope with everyday life, many have qualities that could make them excellent employees. They tend to be highly focused, reliable, honest and punctual, and often excel at detail, particularly when using numbers and data.

Objectively, these are valuable traits. But at the subjective, personal level, people with autism are at a serious disadvantage. Autism makes it difficult to read emotions and deal with everyday relationships – for example, picking up on sarcasm and subtext or chatting informally with strangers is a challenge. That might not make a difference to how they perform their job; but in an interview or an ordinary office environment it can lead to prejudice and misunderstanding.


Now the German software company SAP is looking to turn this prejudice on its head. This week it announced a new recruitment drive specifically targeting people with autism for jobs in computer programming and product testing.


‘We share a common belief that innovation comes from the edges,’ says the company’s director. And she believes that the mental characteristics of people with autism – like attention to detail and the ability to spot mistakes – make them ideal for a career in programming.

The link between autism and computing has been noticed before: Silicon Valley in California, home to the world’s most flourishing community of hi-tech business, has seen diagnosis rates rocket in recent years. Could programmers high on the autistic spectrum be marrying and having children with the condition? Many psychologists believe the answer is yes.

A fine condition

SAP’s new tactic is no act of charity but an enterprising attempt to appeal to a group who may well be perfectly suited to the industry. Most autism charities and campaigners have welcomed the move and called on other companies to follow suit: this could be a major leap forward in defeating a persistent prejudice, they say.

But some people are concerned about discriminating based on a poorly-understood disorder – even if the discrimination is positive. Setting aside specific roles for people with autism limits their opportunities, they argue, and forces them all into a single crude category. Better to disregard the label and judge on ability alone.

You Decide

  1. Should software companies consciously target people with autism for recruitment?
  2. Is it wrong to call conditions like autism ‘disorders’?

Activities

  1. List five characteristics that are associated with autistic spectrum disorders.
  2. Read the excerpt ofThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time(which you can find in the ‘Become An Expert’ section), and write a paragraph of your own descriptive writing from the perspective of someone with autism.

Some People Say...

“When it comes to the human brain, there’s no such thing as normal.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I sometimes have difficulty in social situations. Does that mean I’m autistic?
Most people struggle with interaction to some extent, and autism is unlikely to be the explanation. But autism is a spectrum, and having some of its characteristics is very common. Perhaps you are higher than average on the autism spectrum – but unless it impairs your quality of life, there’s nothing bad about that at all.
How should I behave around someone with autism?
For a start, remember that there’s no universal mould. Everybody is different, and that applies as much to people with autism as anyone else. But here are some good general rules: be precise and literal when you are speaking; avoid sarcasm; don’t rely on unspoken assumptions and try not to get exasperated about mistakes or misunderstandings.

Word Watch

Autism spectrum disorders
So-called because autism is not in fact one disorder but a group of conditions linked by similar characteristics. Some cases involve severely impaired mental and linguistic abilities, and prevent people from living without constant personal care. Others, like asperger’s syndrome, are relatively mild and often come with an unusually high level of intelligence in certain areas.
15%
This compares unfavourably not only to general employment rates but also among people with other disorders, which stand at roughly 36%.
Subtext
Things that are implied but never explicitly said. If you want to tell somebody to leave your house without offending them, for instance, you might mention that you’re tired or have a lot of work to do – hinting that you want to be alone is the subtext.
Silicon Valley
An area to the south of San Francisco in California. The name is a reference to the silicon chips that power electronic equipment, which have been manufactured there since computing became a major industry. It now houses many computing and online businesses small and large, including Apple, Google, Intel and Yahoo.

Subjects

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