Part of the reason autism has captivated Hollywood moviemakers more than other developmental disabilities is that, for all the difficulties it brings those who have it, it also gives some of them the ability to perform uncanny feats of brainpower: effortlessly memorizing train schedules or song lyrics, identifying the day of the week of any date in the past. Even among those who aren’t full-blown savants, many display an impressive ability, even a desire, to immerse themselves in what the rest of us would see as mind-numbingly boring, detail-oriented tasks.
What if we could turn that ability toward things besides memorizing train schedules? It’s not simply an abstract question: The vast majority of those with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism are unemployed. A few companies are trying to do just that, and all in the same sphere: software testing, the epitome of mind-numbing, detail-oriented work. The pioneer was a company called Specialisterne, started in 2004 by a Danish software engineer with an autistic son—it has since created offshoots in Iceland and Scotland. In 2008 a small nonprofit called Aspiritech in Chicago was started to put people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome to work testing smartphone apps.
The newest entrant into the space in the U.S. is a Los Angeles-based software and design firm called Square One. The company has a small pilot program working to design a software-testing training program for people on the autism spectrum. The project grew out of conversations between company co-founder Chad Hahn and his wife, Shannon, who works with the developmentally disabled. Hahn, along with experts his wife led him to, has put together a software-testing curriculum that he’s now in the process of teaching to an inaugural class of three. The course he’s designed relies not on written instructions but on a software tool called iRise to create simulations of the sort of problems the trainees would confront in an actual work setting.
Hahn is also trying to develop a work environment that would be friendly to those on the autism spectrum, for whom the social interactions of a typical workplace can trigger paralyzing anxiety. For some people, Hahn says, that might mean ensuring that there’s a quiet room or a set of headphones they can put on to block out the buzz around them; for others it’s making sure there’s a counselor there to talk to whenever they need it. Hahn says he’s in talks with Warner Bros. and LegalZoom about software-testing contracts.
But what’s most original about Square One’s approach is how resolutely bottom-line-oriented Hahn is. Specialisterne only worked because of generous Danish subsidies for employing the developmentally disabled, and Aspiritech is a nonprofit. But for the time being Hahn is committed to the for-profit route.
A lot of software testing is done overseas by workers in India. The case Hahn makes is that his software testers will work for $15 to $20 an hour—pay comparable to, or even lower than, that of software testers in India, but right here in the U.S. After all, he points out, people with autism don’t have a lot of alternatives—when they do find work, it’s usually bagging groceries or sweeping hospital floors at the minimum wage.
Hahn, in other words, is proposing outsourcing to the developmentally disabled rather than the developing world. Asked whether it might be exploitative to pay people with a disability less than those without one for doing the same work, he says he doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, he says, Indian software testers aren’t exactly sweatshop labor; they make about $25 an hour. And if paying less makes the company able to hire the developmentally disabled in the first place, he doesn’t see a problem with it.
“I haven’t had one parent of an autistic child come to me and say this isn’t going to work,” he says. “They say, ‘This is a way for my child to make more money than they would have made otherwise, and allow them to be more independent.’ They worry, what is my child going to do when I’m gone? And this is kind of a way out.”