Companies are interested in people with autism

  • SAP, the IT giant, will recruit 650 by 2020.
  • Specialisterne, the Danish company, expects to create one million jobs.

At the end of May, SAP, the German IT giant made known its intention to hire 650 people with autism in software programming and testing by 2020. At that time 1% of the 65,000 employees of the multinational world leader in the enterprise software market will be autistic people that SAP will have evaluated for particular skills. The group refers to them as “unique talents.” They will carry out pilot projects that are performed in India and Ireland.

These skills stand out in some business sectors, the first of these being IT. Reference is often made to the famous British hacker Gary McKinnon, alias “Solo.” He was accused of penetrating NASA and Pentagon networks. He suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism at the top of the autism spectrum.

“Autistics have a particular capacity for concentration. This is a unique asset for finding programming code errors”, explained Tilman Höffken, representative for SAP. Cinzia Agoni-Tolfo, president of ASBL Inforautisme, a not-for-profit agency confirms, “they have remarkable photographic memories, a true ability to detect details helped by great visual acuity. They can pick up right away anything that might be wrong.” 

In spite of this, autistics have difficulty finding employment. “According to studies carried out in the United States, autistics are not regularly employed about 90% of the time. The numbers in Europe are thought to be similar”, explains Aurélie Baranger, manager of the Autisme-Europe association. What’s the problem? “Companies still reject the idea of hiring autistics,” says Cinzia Agoni-Tolfo. “Autism is still seen as mental illness.”

Epidemiological studies agree that one of one hundred people suffer from a disorder on the autistic spectrum. Sixty percent of autistics do not display any intellectual impairment. These, however, are not all “high-functioning” autistics whose cognitive capabilities are remarkably high.

The difficulty presented by their integration into professional life is not based on prejudice alone. It’s also predicated on the social interaction problems autistics often have. Autism is a neurological development disorder that affects the ability to communicate. “They understand neither social codes nor social hypocrisy,” continues Agoni-Tolfo.  They are completely direct: there are no subtleties. It’s either yes or no. Their relationships with coworkers can be problematic. Teamwork is not their strong suit.

In the past few years, some companies have developed specific recruiting techniques and hired autistic people. They provide a customized work environment. Specialisterne, the Danish company, blazed the trail in 2003. Now this ex-startup located in several European countries is aiming to provide work for one million autistic people in the world.

In Belgium, its experience has inspired Passwerk, a cooperative society with social objectives located in Berchem in Antwerp since 2008.

This company now employs 40 autistics who, after training, became software testing engineers for a very diverse clientele. As of 2011, four of them are working for Stib, the Brussels public transportation agency. There they test subway access gates and the electronic chips in travel cards. “Our contract with Passwerk will most probably be renewed in September,” explains Stib’s An Van Hamme. “We are very satisfied with this collaboration. These people have the ability to remain extremely concentrated during repetitive testing which in the long run would dull anybody else’s concentration.”

Passwerk does not recruit people with autistic spectrum disorders to gain some sort of sympathy. “We simply are convinced by the abilities displayed by these workers, especially in IT technologies,” clarifies Dirk Rombaut, Passwerk co-founder and sales manager. The company has designed an environment that allows its employees to better express their abilities, and it works. Passwerk, which receives no subsidies apart those paid by any company that hires handicapped people, quickly became profitable. “At first,” says Dirk Rombaut, “we had to persuade the customers. Now, they are believers.”


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