Harnessing the Power of ASD

“The literature on autism emphasises all the things that people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) cannot do”.

I thought that this was an appropriate and prescient opening to Harnessing the Power of Autism Spectrum Disorder by Jonathan Wareham and Thorkil Sonne in Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, 2008, vol. 3, issue 1, pages 11-27.

As the text goes on to say: “ they [people with ASD] are poor at social interaction, have difficulties understanding body language, facial expression, or other implicit communication. They also cannot contend with chaotic or turbulent environments, have difficulty working in teams and are inflexible in their behavioural patterns”.

Or are they? According to Thorkil Sonne, father to a young person with autism, all of the preceding points are the antithesis of everything that was being demanded in the labour market and so motivated him to found Specialisterne, a software company which aimed to leverage the unique of skills of those with ASD at competitive market terms.

The company “celebrates the strengths of autism – attention to detail, excellent memory and ability to concentrate and work very systematically” – to perform specific tasks for high-tech clients in the area of software testing.
Sonne identified testing as a perfect candidate for specialization due to the fact that he believed that programmers and systems analysts make poor testers in general due to their propensity to prefer problem solving in new, challenging and unique situations. However, for people with Asperger it is ideal work and highlights the potential when marrying the unique skills that people with AS possess with appropriate career paths.

As the author rightly asserted, testing is different to programming: it involves checking and rechecking the same routine outcomes each time a new version of the software appears to identify bugs that may appear in new features – rigorous routine and exacting thoroughness are the primary virtues of a software tester, facets which can often be found in people with AS.

Sonne secured an initial contract from a former employer, but it wasn’t to use his words “an easy sell” for reasons which I too believe present barriers to employing people with ASD. It invoked thoughts of philanthropy and inferior quality and Sonne didn’t want to rely on a client’s sense of charity. Instead, he did what I also believe was required – and certainly possible: he aimed to provide a best-in-class service and paid AS employees industry competitive wages. In other words, he treated them the same as other mainstream employees. Today, the company’s clients include CSC, Microsoft and Oracle.

The paper starts by looking at the Autism Spectrum Disorder in general or the “Triad of Impairments”: social interaction, communication and imagination. To the triad, the author adds extreme narrow focus, repetitive behaviour patterns and resistance to change – all issues that needed to be addressed in a corporate context. However, as the paper then goes on to assert – correctly to my mind – ASD is too broad and vague a concept to be meaningful meaning, therefore, that the talents of people with autism will vary widely as they do in the rest of the population, thus necessitating a more professional and measured approach. The paper also emphasises that, unlike with classic autism, Asperger syndrome (AS), doesn’t involve learning difficulties. People with AS have normal or even above-average IQ and this is where another benefit lay.

Consequently, some highly capable people with ASD never come to the attention of “special needs” services and often have to invent their own strategies to overcome their difficulties with communication and social interaction. Doing so however can enable them to find fulfilling employment that suits their particular talents.

Importantly, the paper also highlights how some people do need a little more help even though they may have similar intellectual capabilities. The key reason identified is because their impairment in social interaction hampers their chances of employment, though it is also highlighted how the lack of understanding by teachers and instability in private lives as a factor also.

Sonne and Wareham then usefully however identify the obstacles in the workplace. These include: lack of knowledge of ASD; prospective employees’ lack of preparation for the job market; lack of acceptance in the workplace of hiring people with a little understood condition ; social taboos surrounding autism; lack of support for people with ASD in getting work and the lack of support in the workplace when they achieve employment.

All of these factors are highly relevant, important and pertinent and are precisely what my Transitions Project that I have developed with the Careers Service at Nottingham University seeks to address.

Five Months Training and Assessment

A major challenge for the incipient organisation was finding individuals with the right combination of abilities that would enable them to deliver services as IT consultants on commercially viable terms, due to the fact that there is no single test for ASD diagnosis.

As ASD is a spectrum disorder it means that, though everyone shares some basic types of impairment, the severity and nature of the symptoms can vary greatly with each individual; this means that they have a unique combination of strengths and impairments. The matter is complicated by the fact that people with ASD are often unaware of this and may have low self-esteem due to the fact that society is sending them the message that they are different and inferior. They may also have a low tolerance of error and underestimate. All of these factors should, I believe, be taken into consideration.

For these reasons Specialisterne decided that they needed a process that would enable the candidates to reveal: a) their learning profile; b) what happens if a task is too hard or easy; c) how they respond to instructions if they are not understood and; d) what kind of job profile is best for the individual candidate. To accomplish this Specialisterne initially began a five-month training programme for candidates with ASD who were interested in preparing for the job market. This was viewed as essential due to the fact that preparation isessential due to the candidates rarely having an IT –relevant education and/or positive job experiences.

To evaluate candidates the LEGO MIndstorm system for used for assessment: a method that combines traditional LEGO bricks with electronic, interactive systems and which enables the candidate to learn the principles of computer programming. The person is led through a series of exercises by a pedagogic consultant who closely monitors the candidates’ behaviour.

According to Specialisterne, the importance of the five-month period cannot be underestimated. Many candidates are shy or modest and so will only reveal their abilities as time progresses. Where the candidate is identified as not being well suited to work with the company, they will have a good basis for evaluating alternatives.
I too believe that this pre-work evaluation is invaluable. Too many people with As – often as a result of their own lack of awareness/understanding – are placed into job roles for which they are wholly unprepared. If problems do occur, as often they may well might, then addressing them later becomes a more taxing and challenging task. Prevention is, I believe, much better than cure!

Strategic and Operational Challenges

As news of the company spread throughout Europe and the US, demand for Specialisterne’s services and their concept far outstripped their capacity to respond to it. This has presented a number of unexpected challenges as the company began to grow quickly necessitating refinements in operating procedures.

The first was integration of consultants into a normal, albeit chaotic workplace. Software-testing often involves working on-site with developers to identify problems and, importantly, to qualify them. Client premises may not be amenable to people with ASD as they represent changed routines and social interaction. To this I would add an unfamiliar environment.

Consequently, a model of two to three testers supported by a team (non-ASD) manager was developed, with the latter co-ordinating the work and, importantly, liaising with the rest of the organisation to isolate ASD workers from issues like corporate politics.

The experience identified some general issues and challenges in managing workers with ASD. Firstly, many have difficulty in understanding implicit meaning, body language or other forms of non-verbal communication. Consequently, there was a need to develop a set of communication tools that emphasise very direct, literal and honest communication. Having a supervisory, supporting manager who understands these factors was, I suspect, is a critical component of the subsequent success o many projects.

The Perceptional Challenge: Social Good – Not Charity

Another key factor in the success of Specialisterne as a commercial organisation has been its positioning as a social firm. Most clients have viewed this positively.

However, one challenge has been countering the perception that work done by people with disabilities is discounted due to the feeling/perception that any work done is inferior. Consequently, it is difficult to avoid an aura of charity that surrounds the company despite the fact that competitive market rates are charged and quality standards exceed market levels.

According to the authors, the outside perception of people is that those with ASD are like the lead character in “Rain Man”: a stereotype of dysfunctional, institutionalized people with limited cognitive functions. However, as the authors correctly assert, most people with ASD do not need to be institutionalised and can function perfectly well in most sectors of society. They are also quite normal in appearance and behaviour in many aspects.

What I found so encouraging about the report is the determined way that Sonne values and supports these principles for business and commercial reasons. For example, one large client was lost due to the fact that they switched to a lower-cost alternative. However, rather than compromise quality and the “Specialisterne proposition”, the established pricing structure was maintained and the client returned later when the quality of the competitor failed to match that previously delivered.

The company did however identify other factors that needed to be addressed as a result of the unique profile of the workforce. Market standards it was found had to be exceeded, but can be achieved because of the exceptional talents of ASD workers. Anomalies and pattern deviances in the software can be recognised more readily and ASD employees can work in a more focused fashion when working on repetitive tasks; they also welcome the opportunity to work in a quite environment without interruption. This extreme focus translates into increased productivity and accuracy.

One downside though is the inability of Specialisterne employees to work to tight deadlines under stress; often, it simply cannot be done. Consequently, projects need to be well defined and organized, milestones met and deviations controlled carefully to avoid stress fro entering into the equation. However, this increased discipline can often translate into secondary savings for clients.

The Consultants

The only formal requirement for joining Specialisterne is an official diagnosis of ASD. Most employees are males between 18 and 45 and no formal education or work experience is expected for acceptance on the training program.
This, I feel, is an important consideration. It sends a signal that this is a company for people with ASD – unlike most companies that are for the mainstream population and which, therefore unintentionally send the message that they are “non ASD friendly”.

Scaling for Growth

After four years Specialisterne’s operating model is now well-tuned and the company is serving prestigious clients such as Microsoft, Oracle and CSC. Moreover, Specialisterene won the CEFEC “Best Large Social Firm Award – 2206”.
A key problem though is scaling the model to meet demand, due to the difficulty in identifying and training consultants as well as the pedagogues who need to integrate the ASD worker into the workplace. Training and refining the skills of the latter can be very time-consuming due to the difficulty in finding the right level of idealism, technical acumen and software experience. This for me highlights the problem of a lack of understanding and training amongst support staff relating to the unique issues faced by the ASD community.

Another factor is the social contract that Specialisterne operates which goes beyond what is normal in traditional tech-orientated companies due to ideological and practical reasons. The social contract within an organisation employing largely AS workers needs to be different and more pronounced due to complications in the workers private life which can often translate into additional stress for the worker. These issues need to be addressed in order for them to work effectively.

One employee suffering from depression for example, didn’t turn up for work for a month! Instead of terminating the employees’ contract, the company’s social mission and values required that they were supported and helped to a much greater extend to enable them to return to work. So in some ways, though the reasons are positive, the social profile of the firm inevitably constrains its growth potential.

To control the risks of poor performance, Specialisterne has also felt obliged to control 100% of new initiatives to balance social entrepreneurship and market sustainability. To possibly overcome this and scale operations, a franchise model is being investigated with Specialisterne defining processes and exercising quality control to protect the integrity of the concept. However, the unique characteristics of the model and workforce make this a less straightforward exercise than in many franchise operations. One particularly pleasing aspect of the model is that the therapeutic and pedagogical techniques pertinent to ASD can be re-orientated to other disorders such as ADHD because of behavioural similarities.

Conclusion

The main motivation for Specialisterne is simple: to make the world a more welcoming place for those with ASD.
Ongoing aims include transferring Specialisterne knowledge wider to enable people with ASD to have more productive lives and to use the experience gained from the business to produce educational tools for pupils to help prepare them for an active life based on their strengths.

However, the company regards its greatest achievement – paradoxically – as being in relation to the mainstream population: by focusing on management that identifies market opportunities which match the talent of AS personnel, or by not force-fitting employees into a defined culture or market niche for example.

This approach emphasises assessing, cultivating and harnessing hidden competencies and not trying to force them into a consensus-based HR model consistent with the “ideal employee”. Doing this requires creativity by other managers to identify space in the market that welcomes the talents of the [AS]employee who night otherwise be deemed unsuitable in a traditional company or industry.

The Specialisterne mission is to change the predominant view of ASD as a disorder and which requires “curing” the employee back to normalcy. The company strives to educate the audience about the value of the spectrum whilst efforts are made to seek the ultimate cure: a world that understands autism’s language and is ready to receive its many gifts.

This is a great article about a hugely important organisation for the Asperger community. Specialisterne has broken the ice: other organisations are now following suit (see www.Aspiritech.org) and the company has set the benchmark by providing a workable and successful model.

The requirements and critical success factors have now been identified.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome