When German software giant SAP said last month it plans to employ hundreds of autistic people as information-technology experts, the news was welcomed, especially at a small Berlin computer consulting firm.
The pioneering company, Auticon, already employs 17 people who live with autism, the disorder characterized by difficulties with social interactions and exceptional abilities in specific fields.
“Many people say that if a company like SAP said it makes sense ... it’s very good for us,” Auticon chief executive Dirk Mueller-Remus said. “That means it’s something serious, solid.”
SAP, which makes business software, said last month that after pilot projects in India and Ireland, it plans to employ hundreds of people with autism as software testers and programmers.
Its goal is that by 2020, people with autism will make up 1 percent of its worldwide workforce of 65,000.
Mueller-Remus created his far smaller company in November 2011 with the idea of “investing in the strengths” of these potential employees. His son was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a variant of autism, as a teenager, and Mueller-Remus has long known that many people with autism excel in fields like programming or quality control.
“This is my talent,” one of the employees, 27-year-old Melanie Altrock, said while sitting at her screen in a white-walled, modern top-floor office in western Berlin.
“Other people are interested in languages or math, for me it’s computers. I don’t just search for errors, I see them,” she said.
Auticon now has 25 staff and offices in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, with plans for another in Hamburg.
It looks to break even “by the end of the year,” Mueller-Remus said.
“We wanted a normal consulting company, without subsidies, without donations, without funding from a foundation,” he said, adding that the aim was to “combine social commitment and business.”
“Today, after a little over a year, we have good customers like Vodafone, it’s looking good,” Mueller-Remus said.
However, he also emphasized that working with autistic people can be “a very complex issue.”
“We can make many mistakes because people with Asperger’s are very demanding,” he said.
“People with autism are very concrete, unequivocal,” said Elke Seng, a “job coach” at Auticon who assists the employees in their relationships at work and with clients.
“There is no innuendo, there is only one or zero. It’s rather nice,” she said.
“Only 5 to 10 percent of people affected by autism find a place on the regular job market,” Federal Association for the Development of People with Autism board member Friedrich Nolte said.
Mueller-Remus said that “their CVs often have brief episodes of work interspersed with long interruptions.”
Often people with autism “have no situational awareness, may seem arrogant, have no interest in small talk, and are not interested in people because people are not logical,” he said.
All of this can give rise to misunderstandings with sometimes serious consequences, he said.
“That more people with autism can access a job is simply fantastic,” said Seng, who added that she finds her work “fascinating.”