Specialisterne finds a place in workforce for people with autism

A Danish IT consultancy is using the special skills of people with autism to improve the quality of its software testing.

A Danish IT consultancy is using the special skills of people with autism to improve the quality of its software testing.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects half a million people in the UK, and sufferers are usually unable to find regular employment. Carol Evans, director of the National Autistic Society Scotland, said, "Only 6% of people with autism are in full-time employment, yet they tend to be highly qualified."

In Denmark, a commercial IT services business called Specialisterne has been set up to offer people with autism the chance to enter the workforce.

The founder of Specialisterne, Thorkil Sonne, formed the software company in order to make use of the special skills that people with ASD can bring to the workplace. "The main benefits that autistic individuals bring to the workplace are they are methodical and exhibit great attention to detail." Other attributes that people with ASD can exhibit include motivation, focus, persistence, precision and the ability to follow instructions.

According to Sonne, these skills have come in useful for the task of software testing, checking documentation and ensuring functional specifications do not contradict.

Sonne's inspiration for Specialisterne came from personal experience: his son was diagnosed with ASD four years before he founded the company. Knowing the difficulty that people with autism have in finding employment, Sonne started looking at how to support autistic people in a work environment and joined his local autism society in Denmark.

With a background in IT, Sonne believed autistic people would be able to excel at jobs in IT where attention to detail, focus and precision would be beneficial. However, the education system in Denmark is limited in the amount of IT training that it provides, so Sonne needed a different way to identify IT aptitude in autistic candidates. By speaking to parents of autistic children at the society, Sonne discovered that many of the children loved Lego, and he struck on the idea of using Lego Mindstorm robots as a teaching and assessment tool.

People with autism have various problems communicating, which makes it difficult for them to perform well in job interviews. So instead of verbal communications, Sonne uses Lego. "I realised I needed a tool they would be comfortable with. We found that Lego could be used as a tool to identify their thought processes."

Prospective staff go through five months' training so that they can get comfortable in a work environment. "They go through exercises using Lego to identify their skills, and we try to find out what motivates them," Sonne said. Generally, people with ASD need to work fewer hours and cannot cope well with stress, so the training is also intended to identify any limitations the candidates will have in the workplace and their stress limits.

Bluechip companies, including Microsoft and global IT services provider CSC, have hired staff from Specialisterne to help improve software testing.

Peter Forsting, business manager at CSC in Denmark, told Computer Weekly that the team from Specialisterne had been working from the CSC office in Copenhagen mainly doing exploration testing, system testing and testing documentation for CSC's client work across mainframe, internet and Oracle applications. "You will be amazed at how good a memory these people have," he said. "They have a photographic memory and notice things we do not normally see, which is really useful in a test environment."

Forsting said the main benefits for CSC has been that the people from Specialisterne are faster and very focused. "This means you get the job done at a lower price and better quality than with our own testers."

Specialisterne is among a handful of companies around the world experimenting with a model of commercialism called Social Enterprise, where business and the social sector combine forces to provide a product or service that can compete in a commercial market. Robert Austin, associate professor at Harvard Business School, has been looking at the approach. "People will buy a product or service on grounds of corporate social responsibility. The challenge is to see if this business model actually works," he said. Social enterprises such as Specialisterne need to change people's perception so that they can compete on merits rather than win business purely on humanitarian grounds, he said.

It is early days for Specialisterne, but the company does have some big-name clients and is now seeking funding to establish operations in Glasgow. If Sonne is successful with Specialisterne, he will be able to provide suffers of ASD with an opportunity to work. Moreover, he will also be able to a offer businesses a software testing service, an area of IT that is often overlooked.

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