Technology Helps Autistic Adults Enter Workforce

By Stephanie Blanchard, Digital Editor — May 23, 2013

Autism is on the rise, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with an average of one in 88 children identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As adults with Autism, many are entering the workforce, a number of whom will be employed at so-called “white collar” jobs.

“Employment is difficult because of the social aspect,” said Stephen Shore, author of Autism for Dummies, during an interview with Mobile Enterprise. “The most heavily weighed variable is how you get along with others. The challenge for those with autism is typical social interaction. How to navigate that domain is like being put into a new culture.”

According to iBrain, by Dr. Gary Small, “digital technology is altering how we feel, how we behave and the way in which our brain functions. The alterations can become permanent with repetition.”

For autistic adults however, such alterations could be life-changing.

“Being able to use computers for communication eliminates the stress of decoding non-verbal body language,” said Shore. “Whereas face-to- face interaction requires the simultaneous processing of words, pragmatics, vocal inflection and non- verbal cues, asynchronous communication does not. Recorded video, for example, can be reviewed as many times as possible to figure out the problem before offering a response.”

With businesses becoming more mobile, Shore believes the mobile landscape is something for autistic individuals to explore, especially when there are more adults with autism. In addition, a greater percentage of these adults are able to work, specifically because issues were addressed when the individuals were children.

New Way of Working
The next generation is being assisted with the help of the iPad and an abundance of apps. “The sooner they use it, the bigger the benefit for the adult,” Shore said. “Intervention is key, but it is never too late,” he added, referring to how the apps greatly help cognitive functioning, for any age.

Scott Standifer, Disability Policy & Studies, University of Missouri, has seen how the evolution of digital technology has opened up new worlds for autistic individuals. As he explained by email: “A few years ago, we were wrestling with the expense and awkwardness of computer-based support tools like assistive communication tools (programs that speak aloud for people who cannot speak but can use a computer keyboard or mouse). It is truly amazing how that has turned around!”

“In the last few years, not only have smartphones emerged as a relatively inexpensive, handy, and low-stigma computing platform, new models have emerged to allow small-scale software developers to enter the national market,” he said. “There is so much potential, and we are only now beginning to learn how to tap into it.

Closing the Gap
The iPrompts app, created by HandHold Adaptive, is used by both schools and enterprises to help autistic individuals improve attention to tasks through visual tools. HandHold’s technology has been piloted in U.S. schools with the support of the U.S. Department of Education and several research partners, including the Yale Child Study Center, UCLA and Southern Connecticut State University.

“I believe the pendulum has swung, from ‘there's an app for that!’ to ‘where is all the research behind these autism apps?’” said Rob Tedesco, CEO and co-founder of HandHold, by email. Although he considers the wide range of choices now available to be wonderful, the opening of the app floodgates has ushered in new concerns.

“Caregivers and end users with autism often have a hard time finding the right apps for their individual purposes. Moreover, the vast majority of the apps that claim to benefit the autism community have very little if any research support,” he said.

The technology gap has also closed more quickly for some than it has for others, empowering voice output, visual scheduling and social skills. “But, from my vantage point, only a small portion of this new abundance of technology is designed especially to prepare those with ASDs for independent living and employment,” he said.

The good news, he added, is that these areas are still ripe for innovation.

Update: This story originally appeared April 11, 2013. Since that time, SAP, which recently announced aggressive initiatives in the mobile space, has partnered with the Danish-based Specialisterne to employ autistic individuals as programmers, software testers and data quality specialists for its operations in the U.S., Canada and Germany.

This follow a successful pilot project in India where Specialisterne, a consulting company whose mission is to create possibilities for those with autism spectrum disorder, helped SAP Labs hire six autistic individuals to be software testers. Productivity and cohesiveness in key areas increased as a result, according to SAP.

“Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century,” said Luisa Delgado, member of the Executive Board of SAP AG, Human Resources, in a company statement.

Mobile Enterprise applauds SAP’s efforts and encourages companies from all across all verticals to take this example and run with it: harness the potential of a large, yet untapped talent pool.

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