Every year, more than 26,000 children born in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism. Autism is considered a developmental spectrum disorder, and it affects people in many ways from mild social difficulties to a severe inability to communicate. An estimated half-million people under the age of 21 are autistic, and some 85 percent of them can expect to be unemployed or underemployed.
But some innovative new companies are working to change these statistics.
Specialisterne ("the specialists") is a company out of Denmark that trains people with autism to be skilled employees. They are sent out as hourly consultants to companies to do data entry, assembly work and other jobs that other workers might find tedious and repetitive. The company was founded in 2004 by businessman Thorkil Sonne, the father of an autistic son. Currently, the company has 50 employees, 75 percent of whom are autistic.
In the United States, Aspiritech is a nonprofit Chicago company that recently launched a pilot program to train high-functioning autistics as testers for software development companies. The company's board includes several people suffering from autism, as well as the actor Ed Asner. Asner, whose son Charles suffers from the disorder, is one of the foremost advocates for autism.
So how do the jobs provided by these companies suit workers with autism? The companies offer positions that can help autistic sufferers excel in the workplace. Specialisterne says their employees can be up to eight times more accurate at tasks such as manual data entry than workers without autism.
The companies claim those who are autistic have a talent for spotting imperfections. Often, they do well with predictable, monotonous work. People with autism often display an intense attention to detail, a single-minded focus and a willingness to work on something repetitively until it's perfect.
Aspiritech was founded by Brenda Weitzberg, whose 30-year-old son Oran suffers from autism. Oran has a college degree, but he had been limited to a job at a grocery store collecting carts. "I am a friendly guy, and my coworkers like me,” Weitzberg told Msnbc.com, “I just have trouble interpreting nonverbal signals from others, and I had to learn to converse in order to be a good coworker." He says his retail work at Target, Trader Joe's and AMC Theatres has helped him learn to interact with others.
The companies create a give-and-take scenario. Specialists are trained for months before they are sent out as hourly consultants. Clients must understand that the employees will work only part-time and not in a chaotic environment. Learning experts and social workers are also on staff to assist the specialists if needed.
Ron Brix, age 54, suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. A retired computer systems developer for Wrigley, Brix sits on the board of Aspiritech. "My understanding of autism is a person who has both great gifts and deficits," says Brix. "My whole career was based on skills that came as a result of, not despite, my autism."