October 20, 2012

Autistic workers an ‘untapped pool’ of IT talent

Strong memory, passion for details and ability to think visually are some of the traits that make high-functioning autistic workers currently an untapped talent pool for the IT industry, industry watchers point out.

High-functioning autistic employees have traits such as strong memory and passion for details that work well in certain IT fields, reveal industry watchers, who say extra steps can ensure employment benefits for both organization and worker.

Thorkil Sonne, founder of Danish computer company Specialisterne, hires only people with autism, specifically from the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. His experience with them has demonstrated that these special-needs people not only have a robust memory and attention for details, they take pride in what they do, have perseverance for repetitive tasks and are "very precise in their way of communication".

“High-functioning” autism typically refers to those that are able to live relatively independent lives compared to others who may demonstrate associated learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support.

Rather than simply placing them in jobs that might not be a good fit, Specialisterne assesses every individual's skills, identifies what would make them feel wanted in the workplace and can help them excel, Sonne told ZDNet Asia in his e-mail.

"We try to find [specific] tasks in the business arena in which the [abovementioned] characteristics are important in order to do a great job," he explained. "We believe that up to 5 percent of all tasks could be solved successfully in a superior quality by our staff."

Specialisterne has been successful in solving tasks such as software testing, quality control, data entry and logistic services, he noted, adding that his team has proven that autistic workers can do better jobs than that of "other providers" the company's customers previously experienced.

Specialized education Anita Russell, autism consultant at Pathlight School, a Singapore-based autism-focused school with mainstream curriculum augmented by "life readiness skills", shed more light on the matter.

She said in an e-mail interview that people on the autism spectrum vary widely in their skills, abilities, needs and preferences.

Russell, citing Temple Grandin, a vocal advocate of autism who has Asperger's Syndrome, noted that when people work at tasks or their jobs that match how their brains process information, this will make learning and employment "much more feasible".

She added that for a "significant number" of people with autism, processing information and facts is best accomplished using visual means or, in other words, "visual thinking".

In a separate interview with the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, Grandin explained that her ability to think in pictures allows her to "see" every aspect of an industrial machine before she draws it.

To better develop this among Pathlight's students, Russell said its IT program has been tailored to meet their learning preferences and strengths. Developing talents in the computer arena is balanced with equipping them with skills in self-organization, problem solving, managing emotions and social communications--areas which people with autism tend to struggle with, she explained.

Pathlight has also been beefing up its IT curriculum, training its students in word processing using Microsoft Word and the creation of presentations using Powerpoint since 2005, the consultant said. Additionally, it started a pilot phase of its IT & Design School in March this year to close the "digital gap" for students with special needs, and create new opportunities for them as the Singapore government continues to push for a knowledge-based economy.

To date, about 56 of its students are attending courses such as introduction modules to visual arts, digital art and interactive design. Russell revealed that the school has plans to introduce new modules in 2012 which will include illustration, Web publishing and animation.

Within the IT industry, specifically, Sonne said the market "needs" the special skills and minds of high-functioning autistic people who have passion and are able to "think differently" from that of other employees.

He added that the corporate sector is "very open" to Specialisterne's concept of making sure companies provide the job scope and environment that will allow this group of people to succeed in the work arena.

In fact, he mentioned that IBM recently hired two people whom his company had assessed and trained during an internship partnership with the IT vendor.

"By using our management model, corporate companies can tap a huge pool of untapped skilled resources," Sonne surmised.

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