Computing Applications

Software Engineers with Autism Add Value to the Corporate Workplace


While the number of companies training individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to work in the software industry is growing, their success depends as much on employers having open minds as on their dedication to inclusion.

Currently, about 30 companies around the world help individuals with autism gain employment, including firms in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere. Many are inspired by companies that are already established, and some openly share their intellectual property to ensure others will be up and running quickly in support of individuals on the autism spectrum.

Passwerk was inspired by companies that presented their work with autistic persons at an April 2007 conference on effective methods of social and professional integration people with autism, dyslexia, and nonverbal learning disorder.  Headquartered in Antwerp, Belgium, Passwerk was launched in January 2008 to train and place software testing and quality assurance consultants with local employers. Its recruitment and selection process is rigorous and includes interviews, a battery of tests to evaluate intellectual capacity, and a three-week assessment of competencies; successful candidates then go through a month-long training program before being placed with a customer.

While this is a pretty typical recruitment and placement process, the success of companies such as Passwerk that focus on candidates with ASD is based on two additional elements, those of job coaches and mind maps. At Passwerk, every consultant placed with a client has a dedicated job coach, who liaises with the client before the consultant arrives to ensure the working environment is suitable, accompanies the consultant to work at the beginning of a contract, and regularly meets both parties to make sure all is going well. Mind maps are created and updated jointly by Passwerk and its consultants and are designed to identify an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and direct their placement in the software industry.

While it is impossible to generalize, many individuals with ASD are well-suited to software testing, quality assurance, and data entry jobs, as they are adept at repetitive work, think in scripts, and have analytical minds, an eye for detail, and a sense of perseverance. Problems in the workplace usually stem from a chaotic environment, which can destabilize individuals with autism, or from awkward social interactions with co-workers.

"Everything can go wrong," says Passwerk commercial director Dirk Rombaut, "which is why we have job coaches working constantly with the consultants and customers, but overall we are successful 90% of the time. Our software testing consultants work quickly without losing quality and discover bugs that other people don’t."

Brussels, Belgium-based Belfius Bank, Passwerk’s largest customer, recently hired four of its consultants as software testing engineers. Gert Vanhaecht, head of the bank’s ICT Distribution Channels, Customer Relationship Management & Servicing, says, "We needed to make people aware of autism and get the working conditions in the testing center right, but once we got started, project leaders were fighting to get their projects tested by the Passwerk engineers. The engineers are happy and proud to work here, and they have added value to the bank."

Tiffany Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Management and Organization at the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University, is studying the inclusion of people with ASD in the workplace and recognizes, like Vanhaecht, the importance of the employer’s culture, as well as the employee’s potential. She explains, "Organizations have the power to create a culture of inclusivity or exclusivity. The process of becoming inclusive is not always easy, but if supervisors and co-workers understand the challenges and strengths of autistic individuals and listen to their needs, they can facilitate a healthy workplace where people want to work and will do a great job."

Acknowledging the work of companies such as Passwerk in raising awareness of the potential of individuals with ASD and improving their employment prospects, Johnson adds, "Employers need to meet companies like Passwerk half-way. Job coaches can help with this, bringing people together and supporting both sides of employment."

While the number of individuals with ASD that companies can help into the workplace is limited by the need for one-to-one training and coaching, Passwerk has grown significantly since it was set up and the headquarters facility currently has 40 software testing consultants, called "Passworkers," all of whom "have an autism spectrum disorder and are normally to highly gifted," according to the firm's website. A further seven consultants are being hired at a new branch, and all are supported by the company’s managing director, commercial director, and six job coaches.

Meticulon, a company working with autistic individuals in Calgary, Canada, got not only its inspiration, but also its business blueprint, from Passwerk. The company was launched in 2013 and has as its target the employment of 44 individuals with ASD by January 2019. CEO Garth Johnson explains that Passwerk’s Rombaut shared his company’s knowledge and tools; "I was shocked by such openness, but it meant we could start our first candidate assessment based on Passwerk documents as early as November 2013."

Meticulon follows similar recruitment and placement processes to those used by Passwerk, and has staff with similar job titles. The company trains consultants in software testing, quality assurance and data entry and verification.

Mobility Quotient, a Calgary-based builder of websites and mobile applications, employed its first Meticulon consultant in April 2014 to support data entry for its Just Wine application promoting wine events around the world. Marketing lead Trish Butler says, "Meticulon contacted us and we went ahead and contracted one of its consultants, not for a ‘feel-good factor,’ but because we needed someone who fitted our culture of working hard and meeting deadlines and goals. The consultant is a perfect fit: she is focused, loyal, and determined to do a good job. I would take on more Meticulon consultants if we needed more resources in future."

For Passwerk and Meticulon, the positive experiences of clients such as Belfius Bank and Mobility Quotient are hard to repeat in a corporate world prone to misconceptions about people with disabilities and what Johnson calls "ludicrous, but common, prejudice" against people with ASD.

Says Rombaut, "Customers that use our service often ask for more consultants, but convincing new customers to contract with us is a challenge every day. Running the business is not easy, but it is a wonderful business and a win-win-win situation for Passwerk, its consultants, and its clients."

Sarah Underwood is a technology writer based in Teddington, U.K. 

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