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When having Asperger’s comes in handy

Caroline SchmittNovember 12, 2014

Christian Andersen has Asperger’s. You might expect that he experienced bullying and a lack of empathy. And he did. But that’s not the whole story. Because now and again being different increases your employability.

Being different (Photo: salamandra)
Image: Fotolia/salamandra

Some would call him a genius, others might just see his disability. But either way, it would not change the fact that Christian is exceptionally good at a job that very few of his colleagues would be able to carry out with such attention to detail, tunnel vision and memory. And that’s because - and not despite - being autistic.

Part of the IT department at pharma company Lundbeck, the 27-year-old is responsible for quality control. For 25 hours every week he identifies errors in the database of drug side effects as reported by doctors around the world.

“The entries are generally made by people,” says Christian. “Some of them are handwritten, some are translated. I see if the entries are correct.”

Christian Andersen (Photo: Christian Andersen)
Some would call him a genius, others might just see his disability: Christian AndersenImage: Specialisterne

This repetitive, but potentially life-saving, task means Christian is able to sustain himself and live in a way that is not all that different from his peers.

Christian has Asperger’s syndrome (AS), a milder form of high-functioning autism (HFS). While both conditions are part of the autism spectrum, people with Asperger’s usually have fewer problems developing their language skills.

However, Asperger’s can make people particularly suited for jobs that require an almost superhuman eye for detail and scrutiny. Additionally, autists - people with autism - are said to make more reasonable choices because they aren’t as strongly led by emotions and feelings as people who are not on the autism spectrum - referred to by the autistic community as “neurotypicals”.

“Hire them or you are missing out on key talent”

But since it’s those “neurotypicals”, who can make or break careers and decide who makes it in society, being different can still equal being an outcast. It can lower chances of working your way up, or working at all: at least 85 percent of autistic people are unemployed.

Tilman Höffken from Auticon, a consulting company that trains people with autism, finds this “frustrating”. “Some of them have a top education and degrees,” he says. “It’s a shame when they can’t make it just because of their condition.”

Despite the prejudices, some companies have tried to include more employees with autism. In 2013, German IT company SAP made a move that inspired other companies to take a different perspective on autism. The company announced it would hire 650 people on the autistic spectrum to 2020, one percent of its total workforce.

And it is not the only company taking such steps.

Jane Moya from Freddie Mac, an American mortgage loan firm that decided to take on autistic interns in 2012, tells Life Links: “If you don’t make an effort to hire people on the autism spectrum, you are missing out on key talent. IT, for example, has found that interns often excel in testing and data modeling jobs, which require specialized skills such as a keen attention to detail, a sharp focus, and the ability to exercise systems in ways developers may not have anticipated.”

Office (Photo: Rawpixel)
Employers have previously noticed that employing people with autism can positively impact on their company’s atmosphere: the whole team was found to communicate more clearly and effectivelyImage: Fotolia/Rawpixel

Höffken from Auticon adds that communication also became much clearer with the hiring of people with autism: “We’ve had clients who said that the whole atmosphere in their department had changed once they took on people on the autism spectrum. People suddenly communicated more efficiently and stopped beating around the bush.”

Difficulties with networking and non-verbal communication

Still, the path to getting hired is tedious for autistic adults; networking, presenting themselves in interviews and being able to initiate and respond to small talk poses a huge challenge for them.

“I tried being a landscape gardener, I tried to be a TV and production technician but I couldn’t drive or keep an overview (of all the tasks I had to do),” says Christian.

Part of being able to focus completely on such a detailed task for hours on end is that it is often difficult to maintain sight of the bigger picture. As typical for this condition, he also has trouble interpreting gestures or any kind of non-verbal communication.

“It’s difficult. I’m still looking at facial expressions but it does take a while,” says Christian. “It’s not that I'm faceblind, it’s getting to know different nuances of people.”
When none of his professional attempts worked out, Christian gave up finding a job and became depressed. He had been treated in hospital for depression before when he was bullied in school, so he knew the feeling of being defined by what he wasn’t, rather than by what he was, all too well.

“I got teased and bullied so much and I still have times where stuff like this comes up to the surface,” Christian says.

Lonely kid (Photo: Mikael Damkier)
The rest of society largely isn’t as accepting and tolerant as the IT industry: kids who are different to their classmates are frequently bullied - that makes accepting oneself even harderImage: Fotolia/Mikael Damkier

The emergence of Specialisterne was a lucky break for Christian. Danish for “the specialists”, the Copenhagen-based entrepreneurial company matches some people on the autism spectrum with outside companies who need their skills as consultants.
When Lars, the son of Thorkil Sonne, the company’s founder, was diagnosed with autism, his father wanted to create a workplace that allowed Lars to thrive and develop self-confidence, dreams and ambitions, regardless of the deficits the rest of the world saw.

In 2005 Christian benefitted from Thorkil’s concept, too. When his parents and local council got in touch with Specialisterne, the IT consultancy decided to give him a chance. After a year of work experience he was referred to Lundbeck and able to start a career in consulting.

Social hurdles

Nine years on, Rune Öblom from Specialisterne is still impressed by Christian’s work ethic and skills.

“Christian is very concentrated at work,” he says. “He has so much energy. But he also consumes a lot of it, it is an extremely complicated world.”

Adults with autism often struggle with teamwork and working in an open plan office can be uncomfortable because of their hypersensitivity to noise.

But Christian’s colleagues are friendly and make him feel part of the work community. However, he says there is a lot of change: “There is a lot of people who left. So it’s a little difficult to meet all these new people.”

Work at Auticon (Photo: Auticon)
“Although changing all of society is a huge goal, I do believe that we’re playing a key role in bringing autism back on the agenda.”Image: Auticon

While Specialisterne helped Christian find a degree of purpose that the education system wasn’t capable of giving, Öblom emphasises that they are “not a charity”, but a business that has to sustain itself by selecting the best candidates. In other words, they can only hire the autists that will bring profit. Öblom estimates that only about three to eight percent of people with an autism diagnosis would be suitable for their consultant positions.

Although powerful, the shift in the global IT industry has not yet reached other industries. Höffken from Auticon says it’s a challenge: “Although changing all of society is a huge goal, I do believe that we’re playing a key role in bringing autism back on the agenda.”

Christian turns 28 this winter. His parents will take him out for dinner and Glögg, a Scandinavian mulled wine, at home in Copenhagen. “It's our little tradition,” he says. He is grateful for the chances he is being given and for the continuous love and support of his family. But, he also acknowledges there is still “a long way to go” in terms of building a brighter future for all people with disabilities.