Outsourcing to the Autistic Rather Than to India


This is not the best  title of an otherwise excellent article dated March 27, 2012  in Bloomberg Business Week Technology about making jobs suitable for HFA's (Highly Functional Autistic or Aspergers) . The author of the article is Drake Bennett.

Many engineers in India, especially in areas of high concentration of technical-savvy engineers like Bangalore, face the same problems as us in  Silicon Valley regarding HFA employment.

The Project Dandelion is a result of breathing the air where this idea is floating around, There is this inscription on the Wall of the West Transept of Stanford University  Memorial Church
Thoughts and words travel just as God's life travels, They do not travel like an individual, but you breathe your spiritual life into the atmosphere as you do your breath, and some one else breathes it in. Those not present still receive it, for it permeates space, and all live in it.

This is prophetic indeed. Here are three companies that did pioneering research in HFA , that give hope to Project Dandelion, see slides  .

Specialisterne

The pioneer was a company called Specialisterne, started in 2004 by a Danish software engineer with an autistic son—it has since created offshoots in Iceland and Scotland.However this company relied heavily in Danish Government funding and charity donations, which is not the best model for US.

Aspiritech

In 2008 a small nonprofit called Aspiritech in Chicago was started to put people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome to work testing smartphone apps.They believe that the barriers to employment for this (HFA) community are surmountable given the right staffing and training model.

Aspiritech leverages the unique abilities of testers with Asperger's  syndrome and high-functioning autism to offer competitively priced, human-powered software testing services. Aspiritech testers all share some form of high-functioning autism that is characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social abilities, making it difficult for these individuals to find and retain work. On the other hand, adults on this part of the autism spectrum possess some unique talents – laser-like focus, attention to detail, superior ability to spot irregularities, superlative technical skills, lack of boredom with highly-repetitive tasks – coupled with high levels of intellect and an intense desire to do work that is commensurate with their skills.

Square One Solutions

The newest entrant into the space in the U.S. is a Los Angeles-based (Santa Monica) software and design firm called Square One. The company has a small pilot program working to design a  software-testing training program for people on the autism spectrum. The project grew out of conversations between company co-founder Chad Hahn and his wife, Shannon, who works with the developmentally disabled. Hahn, along with experts his wife led him to, has put together a software-testing curriculum that he’s now in the process of teaching to an inaugural class of three. The course he’s designed relies not on written instructions but on a software tool called iRise to create simulations of the sort of problems the trainees would confront in an actual work setting.

Hahn says: “I haven’t had one parent of an autistic child come to me and say this isn't going to work,” ...  “They say, ‘This is a way for my child to make more money than they would have made otherwise, and allow them to be more independent.’ They worry, what is my child going to do when I’m gone? And this is kind of a way out.”

Hahn pays substantial salaries of $25 per hour for the HFA software workers, starting from a minimum of $15 per hours day 1. The trick was to use visualizations instead of text during the training.  Quote from iRise newsletter

Due to inefficiencies in outsourcing—including errors attributable to time zone differences, cultural and linguistic barriers, and the typical limited scope of what can be specified in a testing contract—Hahn believes that the typical real effective cost of globally outsourced testing is probably 50% higher than the standard rates of $20-$25 per hour. For that amount, he says, he can employ local people with mental handicaps at something they like and are good at, at much higher rates than they earn at the usually low-skill positions that are often the only jobs they can get.

The first three candidates are undergoing a 60-90 day training program, working ten hours per week at Square One offices. There was just one problem, says Hahn.

“My training materials were pretty text-based, and it’s hard for three trainees to interpret text requirements well,” he says. “Since we’re iRise users, we decided to create visualizations that had bugs and deficiencies, so we could show them how to spot new problems,” he says.

That did the trick, says Hahn. “iRise visualization helps people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome for the same reason that it helps business users understand software requirements: Everyone understands a picture,” says Hahn.

The results so far have been very promising. “We are seeing very encouraging results from the pilot, with all of the three candidates demonstrating the required proficiency needed to test software in a commercial setting,” comments Hahn. “We think we can use their strengths, now that we’ve figured out how to train them.”


Project Dandelion


 ... intends to be a more inclusive project, where in addition of software engineering, there are jobs where the HFA skills exceed the main population skills. Unlike Specialisterne we can't be heavily dependent of Governments and Charities in US

 Aspiritech and Square One are wonderful example of American entrepreneurial spirit and they are a model for Project Dandelion. We have to scale up the results of Square One (right now they seem to have 3 HFA employees ) to hundreds and then thousands of jobs, until the autistic employment will be accepted as natural  by everyone in US and later worldwide.
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