Thinking differently: Autism finds space in the workplace

Tue Jun 4, 2013 11:35am EDT
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By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent

LONDON (Reuters) - 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, U.S. home financing firm Freddie Mac advertised a second round of paid internships aimed specifically at autistic students or new graduates.

The multinationals both say they hope to harness the unique talents of autistic people as well as giving people previously marginalized 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, Luisa Delgado, said as she announced the plan.

For Ari Ne'eman, president of the Washington DC-based Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and a member of the U.S. National Council on Disability, the moves are welcome and well overdue. It's high time autism fought back, he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"We need to see neurological diversity in much the same way as we've seen workplace diversity efforts in the past on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation," he said. "We're now seeing a growing level of interest in this."

Autistic spectrum disorders, including Asperger's syndrome or high-functioning autism, are thought to affect around 1 percent of the population worldwide.   Continued...

Commuters move through the grand hall of Grand Central Terminal in New York, January 25, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid