Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Computer Technology and Autism - A Good Fit?

As people with [ mostly ] relatively little contact with those with some form of autistic behaviour, many of us have little real world knowledge of the condition and its influence on those with the condition.  Many see a future for these people in sheltered workshops or similar places.

As an overview - we seem to believe that it is a sentence for which there is little in the way of positive outcomes.  Maybe that view is dated, very dated.  Current thinking sees autism as a spectrum disorder with very wide ranges of being affected - and unfortunately some may have a less than rosy future.  But for many, there may be some more positive outcomes, related to development and a real career.

One of the world's largest and more influential technology companies, with operations in many countries including Australia, is SAP, a software provider and systems integrator to large corporations and governments.  Well guess what?  SAP is now hiring people with autism.  Yes, there may be some serious help in work and career development for those with the condition.

Strange, well  maybe not so strange.

In 2002 a Scottish hacker with Asperger’s [a form of autistic spectrum disorder] 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 start-up CEOs all known to be obsessive, antisocial, and incredibly blunt. Bill Gates of Microsoft is reputedly an Asperger Syndrome person. 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 start-up 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 and 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.......real jobs, and careers even .

Technology companies are a major employer these days, and often the disabled struggle to find work, so I was surprised and pleased 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.  And in India that is a big, big step where disability is seriously looked down on. 

With only 15% of adults with autism in full-time employment, according to the US 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 start-ups are made up almost entirely of autistic and aspergic people, but it’s by far the biggest tech company to make such an announcement. Denmark-based Specialisterne is 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.

Is it happening here in Australia?  Is there any local data available?

And it makes perfect sense. In the logic, numbers-based world of software, some autistics can  thrive. Their often maths-orientated and usually 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 some changes may 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 really fantastic.

If more of the tech firms [especially some of the larger ones] follow suit, technology could lead the way in actually providing equal opportunities hiring, and reducing stigmas.

THAT has to be a good thing for society in general.

There is some more here on this issue -



[some material in this blog adapted from the first article above]

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