We Need More Autistics In Tech

SAP recently announced plans for an Autistic recruitment drive. Dan Swinhoe explains why the other tech giants should follow suite.

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