Company Succeeds at Hiring Autistic Adults

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

Company Succeeds at Hiring Autistic Adults


Byline: Carla K. Johnson Associated Press

HIGHLAND PARK -- The software testers at Aspiritech are a collection of characters. Katie Levin talks nonstop. Brian Tozzo hates driving. Jamie Specht is bothered by bright lights, vacuum cleaners and the feel of carpeting against her skin. Rider Hallenstein draws cartoons of himself as a DeLorean sports car. Rick Alexander finds it unnerving to sit near other people.

This is the unusual workforce of a U.S. startup that specializes in finding software bugs by harnessing the talents of young adults with autism.

Traits that make great software testers -- intense focus, comfort with repetition, memory for detail -- also happen to be characteristics of autism. People with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, have normal to high intelligence and often are highly skilled with computers.

Aspiritech, a nonprofit in Highland Park, nurtures these skills while forgiving the quirks that can make adults with autism unemployable: social awkwardness, poor eye contact, being easily overwhelmed. The company's name plays on the words "Asperger's," "spirit" and "technology."

Clients, nine companies in Aspiritech's first two years, have been pleased.

"They exceeded my expectations," said Dan Tedesco of Shelton, Conn.-based HandHold Adaptive, which took a chance on Aspiritech to test an iPhone application. "There is a pride in their product you don't usually see in this type of work."

Aspiritech was founded by Moshe and Brenda Weitzberg after their son, Oran, now 32, was fired from a job bagging groceries. Oran was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was 14. He now works at Aspiritech.

"He went from failing at bagging groceries to being one of the best software testers on our team," said Brenda Weitzberg.

The Weitzbergs modeled Aspiritech on a successful Danish company called Specialisterne, or "the Specialists." Specialisterne also employs software testers with autism. Its satisfied clients include Oracle and Microsoft.

This year, Aspiritech projects $120,000 in revenue, with 60 percent coming from donations and 40 percent from clients. The Weitzbergs hope to raise the client revenue to 50 percent next year.

The unemployment rate for adults with autism is unknown, but it's thought to be high, said Scott Standifer of the University of Missouri's Disability Policy and Studies office. "We don't know how many adults have autism and, because of that, we don't know their rate of unemployment," he said. "We do know from tracking adults just emerging from high school that they are having great difficulty finding jobs. …

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