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Why Hiring Autistic Workers Can Be Good For Business

Those who suffer from autism are increasingly sought out for their special skills set, particularly in IT. But difficulty with office politics and politesse can place limits.

Working at Zurich's Asperger Informatik
Working at Zurich's Asperger Informatik
Francesca Sacco

GENEVA – For a growing number of companies, autistic people have become a prime target for employment. With increasing cases of autistic workers rising to be top IT engineers, they are now sought out not only for their specific capabilities, but also for their psychological profile. The German group SAP, Europe's largest software developer, announced in May that it would hire 650 people with Asperger syndrome to program and test management software.

Like Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rain Man, autistic people are renowned for their extreme attention to detail, as well as for their extraordinary memory and concentration abilities.

When it comes to studying closely hundreds of pages of very complicated documents, they are often unmatched in performing the task of reading through dense materials until a solution is found. Still, employers should be aware those with autism are less likely to show a sense of humor in the workplace or be tolerant of coworkers messy desks.

"It's absolutely fascinating to see how these people can focus on one specific thing and ignore all the rest," says Anka Wittenberg, spokesperson for SAP. After a successful trial in its research and development center of Bangalore, the German group decided to collaborate with Copenhagen-based employment agency Specialisterne.

The announcement of that partnership triggered a flood of spontaneous requests from autistic people and attracted the attention of the local media. "We weren't expecting such a reaction," admits Wittenberg. "It proves that we're on the right path." With branches on several continents, Specialisterne was described by the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs & Equal Opportunities, Vladimir Spidla, as a "model for Europe."

In Switzerland, people affected with Asperger syndrome, one of several conditions grouped under autism spectrum, also have their own specialized agency: Asperger Informatik, founded in Zurich in 2008 and headed by Susan Conza, herself an "aspie" (nickname commonly used by those concerned). It has, for instance, worked with Zurich's local council and created the website of the Vice President of the Swiss People's Party Christoph Blocher.

The agency employs nine people, half of them "neurotypical", that is to say people who don't have Asperger's. This diversity is essential, says Conza. "We are the best in technical fields," she says. "But we need neurotypical people to perform the tasks that require good social skills."

Since "aspies" are not great at social relationships — they understand everything literally and don't see why somebody would be offended it you told them they have a big nose, for example — they don't tend to actually work in companies. Instead, they work from the agency where they have their own individual offices.

"It's true that the required skills for some positions can correspond to the qualities of people with Asperger's," says Lauriane Mounard, consultant for HR4Value, a company that specializes in human resources management. "I'm talking about work that requires very specific detail and of high quality." On top of IT, this also includes: clock making, accounting, technical drawing, precision mechanics, engineering, research or translation.

Upsides to narcissim

Autism is not the only disability likely to represent an advantage in the job market. Narcissistic people make excellent traders. When in the middle of a financial bubble, they lose less money than those who show empathy because they don't let the desire to understand why prices are rocketing take over: they simply refuse to pay more. This is the hypothesis formulated by the economist Peter Bossaerts, associate professor at the University of Utah and the California Institute for Technology, in the September issue of the scientific journal Neuron.

Does this mean that obsessive, egotistical and distressed people are returning to favor in the eyes of employers? Certainly not. "If some traits of character such as meticulousness are positively correlated with work performance, you can't compare someone who is conscientious and presents a small obsessional tendency to somebody who suffers from a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder," explains Nicolas Roulin, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. "After a certain threshold, it can become a factor of counter-productivity. And understandably, recruiters would rather discard such candidates."

The success that seems to have been met with "aspies" cannot be extrapolated to all neurological conditions. Besides, Asperger syndrome is not even considered as a mental illness in the latest classification of psychiatric diagnoses. Some researchers see it as a difference, not as a disorder that needs to be treated or cured. Also, Asperger subjects tend to provoke a certain fascination from the public because of their conspicuous gifts and are generally seen as people with a "high potential."

"Asperger Informatika immediately attracted a lot of interest and curiosity, but at the beginning, my agency was somehow seen as a zoo for exotic beings," remembers Susan Conza.

And Mounard notes that placing these individuals can still be quite difficult. "They need a very well structured environment. But situations change regularly in most companies, which requires of the workers to have the capacities to adapt and social skills that are not distinctive from that of people with Asperger's."

According to Nicolas Roulin, it is possible that some companies recruit these people not for their particular skills but rather to give a good image of their organization, because of a desire to be socially responsible or even because they are forced to. In some countries like France or Canada, any company with more than 100 workers must indeed employ a certain proportion of disabled people, between 4.5% and 6%.

Sebastien Dieguez, researcher at the neurology unit of the medicine department of the University of Fribourg fears this trend is no more than "a marketing ploy without future." He adds: "what strikes me is how easily people are defined on the basis of a psychiatric diagnosis or of a psychological profile. That is to say, not only do we judge their attributes, but we also categorise them, as we would to say that such bird is a sparrow or that such tree is a plane tree, ignoring in the process the extraordinary complexity of human nature."

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