I’m seriously concerned that the schools aren’t doing enough (change that: aren’t doing anything!) to prepare students on the autism spectrum for a range of careers that are beginning to open up for them in the workplace. So much of recent educational ”reform” has been about preparing our students to be college and career-ready. If this is true, then we should be focusing on doing everything we can to help prepare students with autism spectrum disorder for new opportunities that are opening up for them. Educators need to know about an emerging trend in the workplace where high-tech companies are increasingly seeking to hire individuals with autism because their strengths are well-suited to a career in information technology. I contributed to an article in the October 8, 2013 Wall Street Journal (online) on this new phenomenon, and I’d like in this post to go over some ideas and resources that supplement what was given in that news piece.
The company that really launched this new trend was a Denmark firm called Specialisterne (”The Specialists”). They hire workers to look for ”bugs” in computer software. Their clients have included Microsoft, Oracle, and other top high-tech companies. Seventy-five percent of Specialisterne’s employees are on the autism spectrum. Specialisterne has opened up offices around the world, including in the United States.
The Specialist People Foundation, which owns Specialisterne’s concept and trademark, has launched an initiative to obtain training and employment for one million people with autism. As part of this project, they have begun creating partnerships with other high-tech companies to employ people with autism, including software giant SAP and Computer Aid, Inc, which plans to employ 3% of its workforce with individuals on the autism spectrum. Two other companies that are also seeking employees on the spectrum include Freddie Mac, the giant mortgage finance company, which has been advertising for interns with autism, and Semperical, in San Jose, California, which provides software testing and quality assurance services, and advertises on its website: ”Our specialized program unleashes the incredible natural talents of engineers on the autistic spectrum.”
Another organization that has taken an important role in training and employing people with autism, is the Plano, Texas firm Nonpareil, which, is a combination training program and software company for young adults on the autism spectrum (photo by Lauren Silverman for NPR depicts trainee at Nonpareil). Gary Moore, one of the partners of Nonpareil (along with Dan Selic), has a son Andrew who is a junior in high school and is on the spectrum. “Although [Andrew] can’t tie his shoes or buckle his belt to do a lot of things independently, he can do technology,” Moore says. “He’s a digital native.” Another group, the Specialists Guild in San Francisco, also trains and finds employment for young people with autism. Their clients include Benetech, Compass Labs, and Launchpad Toys.
These new employment trends come in the wake of research findings suggesting that in addition to the difficulties that people with autism have in the areas of social functioning and communication, they also have particular strengths, which up until now haven’t been recognized. Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, points out that people on the spectrum are good at interacting with system rather than people (and these systems include computer programs and other IT systems).
Laurent Mottron, a University of Montreal scientist has written about the strengths of autism in a recent article in the prestigious British journal Nature, and suggests that if IQ tests such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (a highly abstract visual-spatial assessment devoid of social interaction), were used with individuals with autism instead of the standard IQ test (the Weschler Intelligence Scale), their IQ scores would be 30-70 percent higher. Another ability connected with autism is the capacity to focus on small details, sometimes referred to as ”enhanced perceptual functioning,” which is a valuable trait for searching for small errors in computer code.
As I said at the beginning of this post, the schools are totally unprepared for this, and the simple reason for that is that special education in the United States has been firmly rooted in a ”deficit” paradigm for the past hundred years – focusing on what kids with special needs can’t do, rather than what they can do. This is true of both public and private schools. Perhaps the most renowned person with autism in the world, animal scientist Temple Grandin, in the October 7, 2013 issue of Time Magazine, wrote: ”I recently spoke to the director of a school for autistic children and she mentioned that the school tries to match a student’s strengths with internship or employment opportunities in the neighborhood. But when I asked her how the school identified the strengths, she immediately started talking about how they helped students overcome social deficits. If even the experts can’t stop thinking about what’s wrong, how can anyone expect the families who are dealing with autism to think any differently?”
I firmly believe that every school that has students with autism (and other special needs) should have a ”strengths specialist” that does nothing but look for abilities, capacities, talents, and gifts in special education students. This would be a specially trained educator who is familiar with the strength-based literature (only a small part of which was noted above), competence in using a range of formal and informal strength-based assessment tools (see my previous post on seven of these assessment tools), and the capacity to help a student’s teachers use instructional strategies based on their strengths. They should also be able to find ways to develop a student’s strengths within the school (such as computer classes) and to serve as a school-community broker, helping to set up internships, apprenticeships, liaisons, and other real-world opportunities where students on the spectrum can be trained and find employment in the workplace.
A study done at Virginia Commonwealth University, discovered that young adults with autism who received training in specific work fields had an employment rate of 87% compared with 6% for those in the control group who received no such help. Clearly, this is a call for action to our nation’s public and private schools, and to the field of special education in general, to stop spending so much time focusing on deficits, and start turning your attention on strengths, because that is where the answer lies regarding helping these kids find success in life.
For more information about the strengths of students with special needs, and specific strategies to help them achieve success, see my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom.