The Wall Street Journal has a new piece today on how a handful of employers are looking to gain a competitive edge by hiring autistic workers. According to the story, software corporation SAP is actively searching for people with autism to fill jobs that require great attention to detail, such as testing software, debugging, and assigning customer-service queries. Also, U.S. mortgage lender Freddie Mac has partnered with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network to offer full-time paid internships to students and recent graduates on the autism spectrum in areas including IT, data services, and finance.
These initiatives are commendable, as an estimated 85 percent of adults with autism are unemployed even though they may wish to be working full time. In theory, protections for people with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities are already afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act. But it’s certainly possible that such programs are more effective than the federal regulation at helping people with ASD navigate and get through the job application process.
Employers like SAP and Freddie Mac are hoping to harness the particular skills and interests that many people with ASD often have—and that can prove to be quite useful in a business setting. Michael Burry, for example, the founder of hedge fund Scion Capital LLC and a protagonist in Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, made tremendous profits off his interest in financial markets.
Burry, who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, was among the earliest fund managers to uncover and invest against the shoddy subprime mortgage market. When the rest of the financial system came crashing down in 2008, his longest-term investors realized gains of 489.34 percent after fees and expenses. As Lewis notes in The Big Short:
People with Asperger’s couldn’t control what they were interested in. It was a stroke of luck that [Burry's] special interest was financial markets and not, say, collecting lawn mower catalogues. When he thought of it that way, he realized that complex modern financial markets were as good as designed to reward a person with Asperger’s who took an interest in them."‘Only someone who has Asperger’s would read a subprime mortgage bond prospectus," he said.
Burry's is a rare case, but his meticulous nature and ability to focus on complicated problems and documents are skills SAP and Freddie Mac are hoping to find and benefit from in other people on the autism spectrum. "Harnessing the unique skills of people on the autism spectrum has the potential to strengthen our business and make us more competitive," Freddie Mac states in its policy. At the end of the day, the bottom line is business as much as social good.