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How hiring people with autism could benefit IT

Inside the Enterprise: Autistic adults can struggle in mainstream employment. But tech firms are making use of their skills.

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Think of autism and information technology, and Gary McKinnon or perhaps Alan Turing come to mind. McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in 2008, and Turing is also thought to have been on the autistic spectrum, although little was known about the condition in the 1940s.

Ignorance about autism continues. According to the National Autistic Society, in only 15 per cent of UK adults with autism are in full-time employment. This is despite the skills that people with autism can bring, such as a facility with numbers, and an analytical mind.

The reasons for the poor employment prospects for people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are complex, as the condition covers a wide spectrum, from people with high-functioning autism or Asperger's to those who may have little or no verbal communication skills.

Even among people with Asperger's, full-time employment rates are very low indeed. Part of the problem is the way ASD affects social communications, and the "soft" skills that are highly prized in today's workplaces.

As the NAS points out, autism is also usually a "hidden" disability, and so colleagues and bosses might not even know someone is autistic just that they struggle to fit in.

But employers are starting to realise the potential of people with ASD. SAP, the enterprise software company, has just announced an initiative to hire people with autism to work as software testers and developers. 

The numbers are still small and none of the posts are in the UK as yet but the company believes that workers with autism can bring real benefits. A pilot, carried out at SAP Labs in India found that the teams with ASD members saw measureable productivity gains.

And, according to SAP's global head of HR, Luisa Delgado, there is a strategic reason for hiring people with ASD. Innovation, she says, often comes "from the edges".

A more diverse workforce will, SAP believes, make for better products, and the company is expanding the recruitment of autistic staff in Ireland, the US, Canada and Germany.

SAP, though, is working with an outside consultancy, Danish-based Specialisterne, to help with the programme. Companies employing people with ASD face two challenges: finding the roles where autistic people can be at their most productive, and providing the right working environment.

As one HR director at an IT consultancy explained to IT Pro, it is as much about educating HR staff, managers and colleagues as it is about providing assistance to autistic employees themselves. In particular, managers need to understand the talents of someone with ASD, and know how to manage the difficulties the condition can create.

IT is a global industry that prizes analytical thinking and thoroughness, and it is also one that is suffering from a skills shortage. SAP's project might be small in scale, at least for now. But it is on the right lines, and it is a lead other tech firms could follow.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.

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