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People with autism are not necessarily meant to be computer programmers

May 25, 2013
May 25, 2013

A lot of people are telling me that as an “autism mother,” I should be thrilled that SAP, the German software company, is looking to hire hundreds of adults with the same disability as my son. SAP believes individuals who have autism make excellent software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists.

But I am not thrilled. I am worried.

Setting aside our own family’s reality—that an SAP job would be completely inappropriate for my son, now 25—I envision enormous potential for failure and disappointment. True, these come with the autism “territory.”  This neuro-biological, communication disability is, indeed, both an epidemic and a puzzle not easily solved, even by a mass hiring like this one.

SAP seems to think it can take on the task of hiring and training so many disabled individuals with very little experience of its own. According to its own press release, it has hired only six people with autism in India, while screening for another five positions in Ireland. Compare these numbers to current official US data, which show that one in 88 children who are eight years old still have autism, meaning they are not likely to grow out of it. Globally, tens of millions of people are said to be affected.

Granted, what may save SAP is that it is wisely teaming up with the Specialisterne Foundation, an organization that has been earnestly working to employ individuals with autism in the software industry since 2004, founded by parents of a son with autism.

But does SAP know how to translate this into its own corporate culture? And what about all the “copycat” companies that might try to do this without support, whether to seek altruism brownie points or because they believe, with justification, that people with autism will help them to make more money?

To make money, a company needs to spend money. This is particularly true when it comes to hiring people with autism. Supporting even the most “high functioning” and verbal but affected individuals in a work environment often requires an extraordinary amount of resources, patience, skill, and perhaps genius. It takes life coaches, behaviorists, sensory integration experts, “social script” writers and more. You don’t merely welcome someone with autism to the firm and send them off to human resources.

The much-heralded ability of the autistic brain to focus is also widely  misunderstood. I know very smart people with autism who would much prefer to “focus” on CSI, Star Wars or the intricacies of the calendar, than any other task at hand, including choosing a health plan or naming a beneficiary. Some would fight—legitimately, I think—for their right to do so, for their right to think differently. Learning how to handle this in an office setting requires training.

Getting back to my own son, Dan, and so many on the spectrum like him, I worry that this grandstanding by SAP will lead to stereotyping, which is the last thing people with autism need. Software is not the one-size-fits-all industry for autism. Or, as the cliché goes: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

My son stopped talking when he was 3, after a period of prolonged development. He has movement issues, but they seem to fade when he works at a farm or when someone works closely with him. Over a few months, one of his aides was able to teach him to dismantle a computer with a screwdriver. What once took Dan 40 minutes to do now takes him four. He now also works taking apart computers in order for the parts to be recycled rather than landfilled.

I am grateful that my son is engaged by work. But it is frightening how truly far away we are from making sure that those who have autism live the full and productive lives to which they are entitled as human beings. An uncounted plethora of young adults with autism—adults who, like my son, would not be hired by SAP—work at jobs that are meaningless to them and society or stay home with elderly parents who soon won’ t be able to care for them.

As a society, we need to come up with many more solutions so that people with autism can work. In the best of worlds, SAP’s initiative will open those doors, as well as its own.

You can follow Barbara on Twitter at  @BarbaraFischkin. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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