For a very long time, autism spectrum condition (ASC) - along with its variants like Asperger's syndrome - was a condition to which an immense amount of stigma was attached, often exacerbated by misdiagnosis.
However, as understanding of the condition has grown, so too has an appreciation that people on the autistic spectrum should not simply be treated as those with a problem to be managed, but individuals who have a great deal to contribute, including in certain areas of employment.
For some people on the autistic spectrum, this can manifest itself in unusually adept mathematical skills, high levels of focus on the task at hand, as well as an ability to retain large quantities of data.
In a time of rapid growth across new technologies, from mobile and tablets through to wearable technologies, the increasing requirement of businesses to monitor and analyse data too is fast becoming an integral part of the marketing function.
The characteristics displayed by those who have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, or high-functioning autism, can therefore be of great value in marketing when it comes to areas such as data analytics, particularly in an age of big data.
As a result, some companies are now putting this understanding into practice by deliberately recruiting those on the autism spectrum in data analytics roles. This is beneficial both to the firms who can obtain a workforce with a certain expertise, as well as to a demographic that suffers very high unemployment levels.
German firm SAP is one technology company that has sought to tap into the potential of employees on the autistic spectrum. It intends that one per cent of its entire workforce should be those with high-functioning autism by 2020 through a process of deliberate recruitment for staff to work in specific areas such as software debugging and testing. These tasks require a very high level of attention to detail, which is a particular strength in some individuals with high-functioning autism.
SAP recruits include Patrick Brophy (diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome), who has a degree in computer science in software systems and a master's in multimedia systems. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, he explained how SAP had made the process easier for him, with the recruitment process being designed to identify his skill base.
He said: "Four weeks before joining, I was steadily more and more nervous. Within a month, [the work] was second nature. I had found myself."
At SAP, the programme of recruitment of individuals on the autistic spectrum is headed by Jose Velasco, who has two children with the condition. That may provide a significant pointer for companies seeking to use such skills in their data analytics; businesses must ensure those at the helm of such recruitment and employment processes have relevant expertise and a good understanding of such spectrum conditions to make the most informed hiring decisions for the benefit of both the employee and the business.
However, companies need to think carefully about some key questions. For instance, should they copy SAP and have quotas that may depend on the needs of a business and how they might change over time? Will the need for data analysis be less, or more?
Other issues also need to be thought through. For example, while some might regard quotas as an example of 'positive discrimination', how far will equality in an office extend? In particular, an issue an employer may want to consider is what form of career progression is appropriate for those on the autistic spectrum.
Companies must make sure they have the resources in terms of trained staff who can help employees on the autistic spectrum fit in and identify any adaptations necessary within the working environment. Certainly it would seem advantageous for companies to consult with people on the spectrum at all stages in recruitment and ongoing support to the workforce. However, in line with this is the need for an overall strategy to ensure employment of individuals on the autistic spectrum works for the company in the same way it does for individuals not on the autistic spectrum, and therefore avoids tokenism.