Questioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome

So I’m heading west again later in the month to take part in CongRegation – the social media conference organised by Eoin Kennedy, the prolific and consummate PR professional and entrepreneur.
Congregation or #cong15 is a one day ‘un-conference’ style digital media and technology festival with a range of events taking place in Cong, Co Mayo from Friday 27th to Sunday 29th November 2015. You can’t buy a ticket for CongRegation.  You pay with your insight by blogging your way in. Here is the blog post that got me another golden ticket.

Questioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. #13 #cong15

From a career spent in technology companies, a brief dalliance in academia and more than my fair share of statistical analysis, the concept of the “autistic workforce” is not new to me. We’ve all worked alongside the eccentric CTO, the quirky sys admin and the maybe a little too direct developer who will pick out and announce your shortcomings quicker than you can say “autism spectrum disorder (ASD)!”

The link between IT/technology and the spectrum is nothing new. Steve Silberman’s ground breaking article “The Geek Syndrome’ published in WIRED back in 2001 discussed “the recurring theme in case histories of autism.. is an attraction to highly organized systems and complex machines … computers are an ideal interest for a person with Asperger’s syndrome … they are logical, consistent, and not prone to moods.”

Employers and NTs [“neurotypicals” as they call us] have become increasingly aware of the value of their skill sets, which some have to a greater or lesser degree, with attributes such as:

• Focus / serious concentration / attention to detail;
• Mathematical / technical ability;
• Rational decision making as less swayed by emotion;
• Ability to handle large amounts of information/data at one time;
• Ability to do repetitive tasks with speed and accuracy;
• Ability to make connections very quickly e.g. to look at code, the background which is implemented with it and see the mistakes in the whole structure;
• Honesty – be prepared to hear all about your mistakes! (Only for the greater good.)

Hiring Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)

I believe if you look at any business process, there’s a good chance you’ll spot opportunities to employ people with autism.
Avaneesh Dubey, SAP Labs India

Following a successful trial of employing a small group of people with autism in India as software testers, German software giant SAP has declared that it intends to gain “a competitive advantage” over its rivals by actively employing people with autism spectrum disorder.

Announcing that it will employ 650 people with autism by 2020 (approximately 1 per cent of its total workforce, which roughly reflects the frequency of autism in the general population). It is now expanding its autistic workforce in Ireland, Germany and the US.

Is your recruitment process ASD friendly?

So if everyone agrees that the “autistic workforce” has a lot to offer, then how do we make sure that our own recruitment processes don’t turn away or filter out this talent?

In order to answer this question, I’ve been lucky enough to work with Speciaisterne Ireland to help me help you. Speciaisterne Ireland is a consultancy that focuses on job creation and employment concept geared towards people with ASD.

They meet and assess the candidates, set up and prepare them for interview and then assist the hiring companies with appropriate staff training and onboarding to assist in making the hire or college work placement a success. (See more about Specialisterne and SAP below.)

We’re working together to provide employers with a set of guidelines on the best processes and indeed questions for candidates on the spectrum. We’re also conducting asynchronous video interviews with a number of their candidates, the results of which I hope will be ready for our meet-up in Cong in late November but in the meantime, here is some top level advice:

How to Assess Candidates with ASD?

Social Skills:

Candidates on the spectrum may have poor social skills. This should not be mistaken for an inability to function as an effective member of a team. An ability to socialise is not necessarily a requirement for a technical role. ASD candidates who are low on socialising skills can be very passionate and knowledgeable about IT and may not have any difficulty making key interventions at team meetings.

Clarity of language:

a. People on the spectrum tend to have three issues with received communication.

i. Literal interpretation. The use of similes and metaphors should be avoided (e.g. Instead of saying: “What part of IT rocks your boat”; say: “What part of IT are you most interested in?”

ii. Ambiguity of language: Clean language is important when interviewing candidates on the spectrum. For example, if you were to ask a candidate “What will you bring to the job?”, you might well get a list of the physical items they’ll bring such as laptop, pencil case, lunch, water etc.


iii. Try not to ask a multitude of questions simultaneously.

iv. Specific questions tend to elicit very specific answers. This can be both a positive or a negative depending on what information you seek. For example if you wanted to assess a candidate’s IT experience you would be better off asking a really specific question because some candidates are very modest or unaware of the range of their skills comparable to other applicants so:

What computer packages have you used or what computer languages do you know?

Is much better than a general question such as:

Explain your interest and experience in the field of ICT (Information, Computers and Technology)

b. Open questions can be problematic

In contrast to what is generally regarded as best interview practice, questions which are framed in a very “open” manner can be difficult for people on the spectrum to interpret. So, when asking questions which are designed to elicit discursive answers it is better to get the information by asking questions as a series of “logical follow-ons.”

c. What’s hot in recruitment might not be applicable:

Behaviour-based interview questions are all the rage – they use past behavior to predict future performance. For example, “Tell me about a recent situation in which you had to deal with a very upset customer or co-worker.”

Behaviour-based interview questions are wonderful in many circumstances but unfortunately the statistics reveal that working-aged individuals with ASD have not held previous jobs.

About SAP and Specialisterne (which translates from Danish as “The Specialists”)

SAP works with Danish company Specialisterne, a consultancy that employs software testers and programmers who have autism and whose ambition is “to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.”

Snapshot: SAP Ireland

SAP Ireland are equally as supportive as their global HQ by providing Specialisterne Ireland with office facilities, its assessment room, additional support funding and importantly about 40 volunteers from the company have given their time as mentors and supporters. SAP currently has 10 Asperger employees supported by Specialisterne Ireland.


People with autism are technically minded and think in a structured way and there’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be able to do the job.
Liam Ryan, MD, SAP Ireland

Specialisterne has enabled me to work in a job I love. The people here are very friendly and I really enjoy the work here”
Nick, in SAP.

Nick has been an employed candidate of Specialisterne since April 2013.He is a graduate in Computer Science of DIT  He started  work in Microsoft, after being unemployed for some time and after 14 months was transferred to SAP as a contractor. Nick has recently become a fulltime staff member of SAP.

No university, no job, and no work experience. And now, a year later, my contract’s being renewed.
Dara, in SAP.

Dara was a student in UL but did not complete his course. He joined SAP in the summer of 2013 and is now a full staff member. Dara is now truly independent with his own apartment and a car. He is like many of our candidates a true advocate for Specialisterne who have appeared in public and on both TV and radio on our behalf.

Concluding Hack: just hire someone with autism someday.


The Geek Syndrome

Rise of the autistic workforce

Conversations and advice from the amazing Specialisterne Ireland team.

11 years harassing, interrogating and encouraging my son to converse!

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