The positive side of autism


The unique talents of people with the condition can be harnessed in jobs which require a particular set of skills, writes ELEANOR FITZSIMONS

SOME OF THE finest minds in history, had they lived today, would have been diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

That is the belief of Michael Fitzgerald, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, and consultant to the Irish Society for Autism.

It is his contention and that of many fellow experts that society should embrace the unique talents of every member and that the world would undoubtedly be a far duller place without the genius of Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, Albert Einstein and others hailed as gifted who displayed characteristics typical of those on the autism spectrum.

The Irish Society for Autism characterises the condition as “a range of complex disorders, the most notable of which are severe communication difficulties, difficulty in social relationships, repetitive activities and routines, and an obsessive narrow range of interest”.

People with ASD often develop an intense interest in a particular subject and can display incredible attention to detail, focus, precision and tenacity in completing a task that engages this interest.

Pat Matthews, chief executive of the Irish Society for Autism, confirms that this group “may have poor social skills but can be very valuable employees” and stresses the importance of “not writing these people off but embracing their differences”.

While genius is rare, the real challenge lies in finding a way to harness the unique talents of as many people who have been diagnosed with ASD as possible and facilitating their participation in society in a meaningful and rewarding way.

According to Matthews, the Irish Society for Autism has observed a sharp increase in ASD, with as many as one in 100 Irish children now diagnosed with the condition, a significant rise on the one in 2,000 reported back in 1963 when the society was founded.

For several years, Matthews has collaborated with Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne (The Specialists), a Danish IT services company that places people with ASD in highly skilled, well-paid and meaningful jobs.

Sonne’s inspiration is rooted in personal experience. In 2000, his youngest son Lars was diagnosed with infantile autism, one of the disorders on the autism spectrum. A background in information technology led Sonne to recognise that some of the characteristics displayed by Lars and others, such as an extraordinary memory and a great attention to detail, lend themselves to repetitive tasks that require precision and are characteristic of this sector.

In 2004, he quit his job with Danish communications company TDC and founded Specialisterne, which offers services such as software testing, proofreading of technical documentation and logic checking of functional specifications. To date the company has worked with cutting edge technology giants including Microsoft and Cisco Systems.

In an interview published in the Harvard Business Review in 2008, Sonne outlined the particular requirements of Specialisterne consultants. “Most of our consultants with autism have a mild form called Asperger syndrome and are high functioning.

“Still, because they’re often hypersensitive to noise, they can be uncomfortable in open-concept office spaces without doors or walls. They also have trouble working in teams and understanding social cues, such as gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice.

“You have to be precise and direct with them, be very specific about your expectations, and avoid sarcasm and non-verbal communication.”

Prospective consultants receive five months’ training designed to help them feel comfortable in an unfamiliar work environment.

Specialisterne recently expanded into Iceland, Scotland and Switzerland, and a feasibility study was undertaken in Ireland earlier this year. According to Séamus Carey of Wilson Hartnell Public Relations, the intention was to “assess the needs of people with autism in Ireland, to investigate what other organisations are doing here and to examine set-up issues such as funding and business planning”.

Kevin Whelan, chief executive of Irish Autism Action, supports this initiative. He believes that the approach adopted by Sonne and Specialisterne “generates real opportunities for people, boosts their self-esteem, is a celebration of their ability and a source of inspiration to their families”.

Asked if there was any possibility of exploitation for a profit motive, Whelan dispels this notion, pointing to Specialisterne employee satisfaction surveys, which consistently show how contented and fulfilled the people who work with the organisation feel.

Sonne is a strong advocate for the right of people with autism to have access to meaningful employment. He has agreed to have input into the section on meaningful employment enshrined in the Irish Society for Autism’s Charter of Rights, due to be re-launched in April 2012.

Matthews is deeply impressed by his commitment to getting one million people with autism into the workplace globally through his charity, the Specialist People Foundation.

According to David Farrell-Shaw, manager of Specialisterne Scotland, underemployment is a real issue, with only 13 per cent of adults with autism in full-time employment despite having specialist skills that offer businesses, such as information technology, telecommunications and financial services, a competitive advantage.

“People with autism can be extremely intelligent, but society as a whole doesn’t recognise this. Some employers find it difficult to make the small adjustments people need to allow them to flourish in the workplace,” he says.

Hailed as a model of social enterprise, Sonne is adamant that Specialisterne makes a valuable commercial contribution, saying: “This is not cheap labour, and it’s not occupational therapy. We simply do a better job.”

Pat Matthews, chief executive of the Irish Society for Autism, says people with autism “may have poor social skills but can be very valuable employees”.