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IT project gives career hope to autistic Scots

A new social enterprise will create up to 50 jobs for people with autism by harnessing characteristics of the condition as skills to provide IT services for major Scottish companies.

 

A dozen trainees with autism are to be recruited by Specialisterne Scotland in the next six months and undergo a four-month training programme before being given positions as software testers with starting salaries from £18,000.

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Figures show that only 13% of adults with autism are in full-time employment in Scotland, but the new project aims to tap into the insight, attention to detail and desire for consistency that are common traits in people with autism.

The company, which aims to create a working environment with a high degree of predictability and minimal stress for its employees, is the first in the world to stem from a Danish project that was set up by Thorkil Sonne in 2004 after his son Lars was diagnosed with autism.

He said: “Lars has been my inspiration. We didn’t know anything about autism and thought we should have some advice about how to support his development.

“Instead of getting some good advice, we were told we have a disabled son. We were told, ‘Whatever plans you have made for your son’s future, throw them away.’

“Actually, it is not him who is the problem, it is society which is the problem. He is caring, sweet, clever, charming. He would be a wonderful employee.”

Mr Sonne began working with autism organisations and said he quickly realised many teenagers with autism had skills such as insight, precision and consistency that would be useful for software testing and other forms of quality control.

He hopes to create one million jobs by replicating the project worldwide. The venture in Scotland has been set up with £700,000 funding, including a £500,000 loan from the Scottish Government’s Scottish Investment Fund, £407,000 from the Big Lottery Fund and £30,000 from Glasgow City Council.

Kevin Smith, a business adviser with Community Enterprise in Scotland, which developed the Scottish venture, said many people with autism were highly skilled.

Much of the work will involve finding system flaws by carrying out repeated software tests.

Mr Smith said: “It goes back to the characteristics of autism in terms of consistency, attention to detail. There isn’t that loss of interest or distraction, which means that the 12th repetition should be as accurate as the first repetition. (People without autism) would probably lose interest after five.”

Daniel Tronborg, 21, has Asperger Syndrome and has also been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He is now a student on a three-year plan with Specialisterne Denmark and trains new candidates in Lego robotics to practise their skills in software testing.

Mr Tronborg, who also has a photographic memory, said that working for Specialisterne Denmark allowed him to use his skills while also catering to his needs, including providing quiet space for work.

He said: “A lot of people think bad things about autism. That needs to be changed.”

A total of 61 people, including 50 with autism, are expected to be employed by Specialisterne Scotland by 2015 and its projected turnover by then is £1.6 million.

Carol Evans, national director for the National Autistic Society Scotland, said: “Many (adults with autism) tell us they want to work. They are qualified and they make exceptional employees.

“Specialisterne Scotland will give people with autism the opportunity to use and develop their special skills based on their own qualifications, strengths and ambitions and make an equal contribution to society.”

  Sufferers face lifelong battle to communicate

  50,000 people in Scotland have been diagnosed with autism. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates and interacts with other people.  It is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. People with autism will have difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination.  Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome are often of average, or above average, intelligence and have fewer problems with their speech than others with autism.  Half of people with autism are financially dependent on their families, according to the National Autistic Society.

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