Jun 06, 2013

    Big firms seek edge with autistic hires

    SOME call it neurological diversity, others see it as autism's fight back.

    People diagnosed as "on the spectrum" are suddenly in demand by employers seeking a competitive advantage from autistic workers more used to being considered disabled than special.

    Expressing a belief that "innovation comes from the edges", German computer-software giant SAP last month launched a recruitment drive to attract people with autism to join it as software testers.

    A week later, United States home-financing firm Freddie Mac advertised a second round of paid internships aimed specifically at autistic students or new graduates.

    The multinationals both said that they hope to harness the unique talents of autistic people as well as giving people previously marginalised in the workforce a chance to flourish in a job.

    "Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century," SAP's board member for human resources, Ms Luisa Delgado, said as she announced its plan.

    The disorders are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors and can range from severe mental retardation with a profound inability to communicate, to relatively-mild symptoms combined with some high levels of function, such as those seen in people with Asperger's.

    Among the core features of autism are poor communication skills and social difficulties. In high-functioning autism, features such as intense or obsessive focus and unwavering attention to detail are also common.

    These latter qualities, experts said, as well as an ability to approach an issue in a different way - often a creative or counter-intuitive one - make autistic people potentially attractive as employees in large corporations.

    "Historically, there seemed to be a certain perception of this population as being incapable of performing corporate-level work," Freddie Mac's diversity manager, Ms Stephanie Roemer, told Reuters. "In reality, people on the spectrum offer so much to an organisation...willing to think outside of the box and view this cadre of talent as a 'value add'."

    Joshua Kendall, author of America's Obsessives, which argues that some of history's greatest American business and political leaders became successful partly because of obsessive personality traits, said the firms that get in first on this trend are likely to reap rewards.

    "These big companies aren't doing it out of the kindness of their heart; they are doing it because they now realise that they've been missing something," he said in a telephone interview.

    SAP said its global autism recruitment drive, which aims to employ 650 autistic people - around 1 per cent of its workforce - by 2020, comes after successful pilot projects in India and Ireland. It is a collaborative project with Specialisterne, a Danish consultancy that gets people with autism into jobs where they can shine.

    So far most of the firms expressing interest in autistic workers tend to be in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

    In Britain, only 15 per cent of adults with autism are in full-time employment, said Ms Carol Povey, a director at Britain's National Autistic Society - a fraction, she added, of those who could contribute to the world of work.