We Need More Autistics In Tech
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We Need More Autistics In Tech

In 2002 a Scottish hacker with Asperger’s achieved ‘the biggest military computer hack of all time’ against NASA and other US defence sites, leaving such helpful notes as "your security is crap". Today, Silicon Valley is reportedly full of people with Asperger Syndrome; dozens of startup CEOs all known to be obsessive, antisocial, and incredibly blunt. Isn’t it time the rest of the workers followed suit?

Disability and tech often go hand in hand. If it’s not diagnosis of tech leaders, it’s how new technologies are making life better.  Chinese researchers recently developed a way for Microsoft’s Kinect to translate sign language into written text, which could be valuable for the deaf. Indian startup Kriyate has created a Braille smartphone, while the fantastic OrCam is basically Google Glass for the blind. Outside of hardware, there are plenty of apps: Apps for wheelchair users, apps for Alzheimer’s sufferers & carers, and apps for Autistics looking for more independence.

Technology can never make being disabled a breeze, but every little helps, and little things like apps can make a big difference to people. But possibly the most important thing that tech can provide is jobs. Tech is a major employer these days, and often the disabled struggle to find work, so I was very happy when SAP announced plans for an Autistic recruitment drive.

Looking for software testers and programmers, the German company wants 1% (equal to the worldwide proportion of people affected) of its global workforce of 65,000 employees to be Autistic by 2020. “Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century,” SAP human resources Chief Luisa Delgado said. Six have already been hired in the firm’s Bangalore office.  With only 15% of adults with autism in full-time employment, according to the National Autism Society, this move could be the start of a mini revolution.

SAP isn’t the first company to adopt this policy. In fact many smaller tech startups are made up almost entirely of Autistic & Aspergic people, but it’s by far the biggest tech company to make such an announcement. Denmark-based Specialisterne are helping them in their hiring, but there’s also Autonomy Works, the German company Auticon, US- based Aspiritech, and Square One all making a point of hiring people lying somewhere on the Autism spectrum.

And it makes perfect sense. In the logic, numbers-based world of software, Autistics can thrive. Their maths-orientated, super-focused minds are less prone to distraction and incredible memory combined with a general intolerance for error means the work is often to a higher quality than other people’s. Obviously changes have to be made around the office, and managers educated on how to best communicate with the notoriously blunt workers (which can be a shock to the unfamiliar, who often mistake pure logical thinking for rudeness), but small concessions can mean a more effective and diverse workforce. What SAP and all these other companies are doing is great. If all the big tech firms follow suit, tech could lead the way in actually providing equal opportunities hiring, and reducing stigmas.

Meanwhile, while people often see disability and something to avoid or pity, they shouldn’t. If the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are Aspergic, it’s worth remembering they’re among the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, and probably won’t care what you think, they’ll just carry on doing what they’re good at.

 By Dan Swinhoe, Editorial Assistant, IDG Connect

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Comments

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D Wong on July 26 2013

It is good to see that the world is starting to recognize that disabilities are nothing more than differentiabilities. However, saying that Autistics are "...maths-orientated, super-focused minds are less prone to distraction and incredible memory" is narrow-minded. There are just as many Austistics who have little focus and are perplexed by the simplest of mathematical concepts. For those people who have not had any direct contact with any Autistic, such a statement can be misleading. Perhaps you should have said "some" Autistics.

no-images

bnzon Aug 16 2013 | 09:10

Let's put it this way: when a person with autistic spectrum disorder is good at something, she is *really* good and obsessively good.

no-images

Dan Swinhoe on July 26 2013

Hi D, Thanks for your comment. I've had direct contact and that's my experience, but you're right in saying I shouldn't generalize as much as I have.

no-images

Justin Craigon on August 16 2013

Vodafone in Germany have also begun an autistic recruitment drive. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23313763

no-images

stanny j d on August 17 2013

I agree with D Wong and more so with bnz as well. It is indeed great to see the world (read the corporate world) recognizing the differently abled people, which also gives them a sense of belonging. Else there are many out there who are amazing but are not able to express and wallow in self-pity or depression or cynicism or some other negative emotion. Thanks Dan for the wonderful article!

no-images

Katrina Moody on August 17 2013

It's wonderful that autistics are finding a more friendly hiring atmosphere within the tech field, but I think it's misleading to generalize all autistics as having the same strengths. Many on the spectrum have different strengths and weaknesses, while there are some on the spectrum who are struggling to make sense of their world to such a degree that a high-stress job would not be a good thing. Autism is a spectrum, and the many people with autism represent that spectrum - they are not all the same, they do not all have the same strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the greater thing to focus on, however, is the drive to specifically hire autistics as a move toward a more accepting work culture for those who are different. I would hope to see that same acceptance extended to others who have different, and no-less limiting, diagnoses.

no-images

AH on August 17 2013

I really appreciate the article and the exposure for many wonderful people who, just because they are different, aren't afforded opportunities the way mainstream people are. However as a person with a family member diagnosed with ASD and two other family members that are trained special needs teachers, I completely agree with D Wong that the statement propagated a stereotype. Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) vary from one child to the next, but in general, they fall into three areas below. Social impairment Communication difficulties Repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. Additionally, referring to this group as "Autistic people" frames them in the light of their disability only. My niece is a person, just like everyone else first. She is has a lot of great qualities like many people, and yes, she is on the autism spectrum, but we don't refer to her as an "autistic person". Sorry for the long reply, but if you have a family member dealing with this but also others who work in the field, precision and accuracy matters to avoid stereotyping.

no-images

Sharonon May 06 2014 | 20:00

You said very articulately what I was thinking! Just the title made my skin crawl. People with Autism or on the ASD should be the identifier, not "sutistics". People first language is far more appropriate. Not all folks on the ASD present in the same way, so job skills must be the desired feature, not a diagnostic grouping!

no-images

Walt Boyes on August 17 2013

This trend was foreseen years ago by speculative fiction author Elizabeth Moon, in her novel "Speed of Dark." It is a great read, and gives real insight into the issues of autism and aspergers in the workplace.

no-images

Sam J Cave on August 18 2013

As a person with Aspergers Syndrome, who was made redundant last year after 5 years working for an Autism Charity, my experience, with a 17 year career in IT, even mentioning a disability to a potential employer gives them a negative impression of you. I've even had problems accessing adult education training. I hope this will change with articles like this!

no-images

D Martin on August 18 2013

I definitely agree with D Wong. As a parent of a severely autistic daughter I find that autism is often reported in a very positive light, but in its extreme it is a devastating and restrictive affliction. It's not all 'Rainman'.

no-images

W Burns on August 19 2013

My 10yr son has been diagnosed with Aspergers. He looks completely normal, but he does not understand teasing or joking around and has frequent meltdowns which makes me worry about him being able to keep a job later in life. However like the article said, he is at the top of his class in math class and the way he locks on to one topic (currently deep sea creatures) and learns every small detail about it, if he took an interest in something like computers, I think he would thrive. On the other hand, if it is something he is not interested in, he has a very short attention span. And I know each person is likely to have different strengths and interests, but from what I have seen, when a person with Aspergers takes interest in something, their focus is amazing on that one thing and the sky is the limit on what they can learn and do.

no-images

C Browne on August 19 2013

I agree with this statement. As the parent of an autistic child. I have watched my child struggle with the simplest mathematical concepts, but on the other hand he is excellent with electronic gadgets since infancy.

no-images

Andy Lewis on August 19 2013

FYI, there are some of in the autism community who really hate it when human beings are referred to as "autistics." "autistic" is a adjective. My son is not an "autistic," he is a human being with autism. We don't refer to a person with cancer as a "tumor," but as a person with cancer. I know you don't mean to be offensive, but it sort of is...

no-images

Asparagus Joe on August 20 2013

As an Asperger it's frustrating to sit and watch the neurotypes spend so much time on social interaction (which they have told me they get so dearly prize) and rest getting done just as much work as they have to to keep the work, get the promotions and clap on the shoulder from their colleagues and bosses. I do not have to tell you, maybe, that another Asperger an I get more work (since we're so efficient) and hear all the time that we're a little weird since we don't like to waste time on meaningless 8 hour sessions of drinking and talking about nothing. I have tried socializing many times, with and without alcohol (in them), and as soon as one gets to the point of discussing something interesting, and just beginning to get in depth on a topic that both I and the neurotype is interested in, they pull away. Either because they actually do not know much about the topic, do not really care, or because they are dragged away by their buddies (female an male) yelling "hey, let's [do something absolutely superfluous that has no meaning at all]". I am sick of it, and going to work for myself now, in my own company, and compete with my old work pals. If you do not understand why I feel the way I do, you probably are a neurotype.

no-images

Richard on August 30 2013

In the Seattle suburbs surrounding Microsoft, the incidence of autism and Aspergers is very common. Whatever the cause, there is clearly a genetic component to these conditions. When they marry and breed, the progeny don't stand a chance. My wife works in the schools, and there are few things harder than convincing a 'spectrum-y' parent that their hyper-intelligent, but socially and behaviorally impacted child has issues, as usually the parents have never been formally diagnosed and think their behavior is normal and acceptable in society at large.

no-images

D Wong on July 26 2013

It is good to see that the world is starting to recognize that disabilities are nothing more than differentiabilities. However, saying that Autistics are "...maths-orientated, super-focused minds are less prone to distraction and incredible memory" is narrow-minded. There are just as many Austistics who have little focus and are perplexed by the simplest of mathematical concepts. For those people who have not had any direct contact with any Autistic, such a statement can be misleading. Perhaps you should have said "some" Autistics.

no-images

bnzon Aug 16 2013 | 09:10

Let's put it this way: when a person with autistic spectrum disorder is good at something, she is *really* good and obsessively good.

no-images

Dan Swinhoe on July 26 2013

Hi D, Thanks for your comment. I've had direct contact and that's my experience, but you're right in saying I shouldn't generalize as much as I have.

no-images

Justin Craigon on August 16 2013

Vodafone in Germany have also begun an autistic recruitment drive. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23313763

no-images

stanny j d on August 17 2013

I agree with D Wong and more so with bnz as well. It is indeed great to see the world (read the corporate world) recognizing the differently abled people, which also gives them a sense of belonging. Else there are many out there who are amazing but are not able to express and wallow in self-pity or depression or cynicism or some other negative emotion. Thanks Dan for the wonderful article!

no-images

Katrina Moody on August 17 2013

It's wonderful that autistics are finding a more friendly hiring atmosphere within the tech field, but I think it's misleading to generalize all autistics as having the same strengths. Many on the spectrum have different strengths and weaknesses, while there are some on the spectrum who are struggling to make sense of their world to such a degree that a high-stress job would not be a good thing. Autism is a spectrum, and the many people with autism represent that spectrum - they are not all the same, they do not all have the same strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the greater thing to focus on, however, is the drive to specifically hire autistics as a move toward a more accepting work culture for those who are different. I would hope to see that same acceptance extended to others who have different, and no-less limiting, diagnoses.

no-images

AH on August 17 2013

I really appreciate the article and the exposure for many wonderful people who, just because they are different, aren't afforded opportunities the way mainstream people are. However as a person with a family member diagnosed with ASD and two other family members that are trained special needs teachers, I completely agree with D Wong that the statement propagated a stereotype. Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) vary from one child to the next, but in general, they fall into three areas below. Social impairment Communication difficulties Repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. Additionally, referring to this group as "Autistic people" frames them in the light of their disability only. My niece is a person, just like everyone else first. She is has a lot of great qualities like many people, and yes, she is on the autism spectrum, but we don't refer to her as an "autistic person". Sorry for the long reply, but if you have a family member dealing with this but also others who work in the field, precision and accuracy matters to avoid stereotyping.

no-images

Sharonon May 06 2014 | 20:00

You said very articulately what I was thinking! Just the title made my skin crawl. People with Autism or on the ASD should be the identifier, not "sutistics". People first language is far more appropriate. Not all folks on the ASD present in the same way, so job skills must be the desired feature, not a diagnostic grouping!

no-images

Walt Boyes on August 17 2013

This trend was foreseen years ago by speculative fiction author Elizabeth Moon, in her novel "Speed of Dark." It is a great read, and gives real insight into the issues of autism and aspergers in the workplace.

no-images

Sam J Cave on August 18 2013

As a person with Aspergers Syndrome, who was made redundant last year after 5 years working for an Autism Charity, my experience, with a 17 year career in IT, even mentioning a disability to a potential employer gives them a negative impression of you. I've even had problems accessing adult education training. I hope this will change with articles like this!

no-images

D Martin on August 18 2013

I definitely agree with D Wong. As a parent of a severely autistic daughter I find that autism is often reported in a very positive light, but in its extreme it is a devastating and restrictive affliction. It's not all 'Rainman'.

no-images

W Burns on August 19 2013

My 10yr son has been diagnosed with Aspergers. He looks completely normal, but he does not understand teasing or joking around and has frequent meltdowns which makes me worry about him being able to keep a job later in life. However like the article said, he is at the top of his class in math class and the way he locks on to one topic (currently deep sea creatures) and learns every small detail about it, if he took an interest in something like computers, I think he would thrive. On the other hand, if it is something he is not interested in, he has a very short attention span. And I know each person is likely to have different strengths and interests, but from what I have seen, when a person with Aspergers takes interest in something, their focus is amazing on that one thing and the sky is the limit on what they can learn and do.

no-images

C Browne on August 19 2013

I agree with this statement. As the parent of an autistic child. I have watched my child struggle with the simplest mathematical concepts, but on the other hand he is excellent with electronic gadgets since infancy.

no-images

Andy Lewis on August 19 2013

FYI, there are some of in the autism community who really hate it when human beings are referred to as "autistics." "autistic" is a adjective. My son is not an "autistic," he is a human being with autism. We don't refer to a person with cancer as a "tumor," but as a person with cancer. I know you don't mean to be offensive, but it sort of is...

no-images

Asparagus Joe on August 20 2013

As an Asperger it's frustrating to sit and watch the neurotypes spend so much time on social interaction (which they have told me they get so dearly prize) and rest getting done just as much work as they have to to keep the work, get the promotions and clap on the shoulder from their colleagues and bosses. I do not have to tell you, maybe, that another Asperger an I get more work (since we're so efficient) and hear all the time that we're a little weird since we don't like to waste time on meaningless 8 hour sessions of drinking and talking about nothing. I have tried socializing many times, with and without alcohol (in them), and as soon as one gets to the point of discussing something interesting, and just beginning to get in depth on a topic that both I and the neurotype is interested in, they pull away. Either because they actually do not know much about the topic, do not really care, or because they are dragged away by their buddies (female an male) yelling "hey, let's [do something absolutely superfluous that has no meaning at all]". I am sick of it, and going to work for myself now, in my own company, and compete with my old work pals. If you do not understand why I feel the way I do, you probably are a neurotype.

no-images

Richard on August 30 2013

In the Seattle suburbs surrounding Microsoft, the incidence of autism and Aspergers is very common. Whatever the cause, there is clearly a genetic component to these conditions. When they marry and breed, the progeny don't stand a chance. My wife works in the schools, and there are few things harder than convincing a 'spectrum-y' parent that their hyper-intelligent, but socially and behaviorally impacted child has issues, as usually the parents have never been formally diagnosed and think their behavior is normal and acceptable in society at large.

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