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Company Trains the Autistic To Test Software 419

Aspiritech, a Chicago based non-profit company, has launched a program to train high-functioning autistic people as testers for software development companies. The company says autistics have a talent for spotting imperfections, and thrive on predictable, monotonous work. Aspiritech is not the first company to explore the idea of treating this handicap as a resource. Specialisterne, a Danish company founded in 2004, also trains autistics. They hire their workforce out as hourly consultants to do data entry, assembly line jobs and work that many would find tedious and repetitive.


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Company Trains the Autistic To Test Software

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  • A Brave New World (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bashibazouk ( 582054 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @08:52PM (#30383542) Journal

    Bring on the Epsilons...

  • Data Sourcing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by IntentionalStance ( 1197099 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @08:57PM (#30383584)
    Yes ago we were doing a data warehousing project. This involved getting other departments to build extract feeds from their system so that we could pull all the data together. Some one had to chase down progress from all these third parties. It was no fun at at all. Spending hours hassling people who were tee'd off with you 'wasting' their time.

    Dave had mild Aspergers. We got him to do the hassling as he couldn't sense the irritation of the people he was calling.

  • Re:Dupe (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @09:08PM (#30383690)

    (And of course, they'd probably make great software programmers.)

    Poor non-verbal skills....check
    Poor eye contact....check
    Lack of empathy....check
    Problems starting conversations....check
    Wants routines....check

    Sure sounds like every engineer I know. Mild autism, asbergers, ADD *or whatever the latest diagnosis is); unless is is severe half the symptoms apply to large groups of people.

  • by Seumas ( 6865 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @09:13PM (#30383724)

    Ever since that report came out a few years ago, it has been "trendy" to walk around proclaiming "I'm a geek and have some weird OCD traits, so I totally have aspergers!" I'm sure it is sometimes legitimate and meaningful, but for the most part I suspect it is the geek version of a guy going around telling people how edgy and brooding and complex he is. And when geeks aren't going around self-diagnosing themselves as that, I'm sure doctors are all too often eager to do it for them for the same odd reasons they go around telling everyone (or used to, at least) that they have ADD and ADHD simply because they can't sit in a chair and not twitch a muscle for fifteen hours straight.

  • by B5_geek ( 638928 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @09:14PM (#30383746)

    On the topic of Autism, I suggest everybody read "The Speed of Dark" by Elizabeth Moon. It puts the condition into a very approachable context that allows the reader to live through the eyes of an Autistic. It also has a great science/research back story that us geeks like.

  • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @09:43PM (#30383948)

    I would think the future, at least the future of computer programming, relies much more on communication skills than rigorous attention to detail. As languages become higher level and more extensible, it is much more important to write code and doc that others can read and understand.

    Yes... and no.

    The code and doc that others can read and understand, yes, that is tremendously important, and will always be neglected in Dilbert's (and our) world of rushed deadlines, short staffing, and lazy coworkers. If it works, ship it yesterday, oh, and after it's shipped, why isn't the next thing finished yet?

    Accurate code and doc requires tremendous attention to detail, if you're talking about API level, you need docs that say what the functions and their parameters do, and functions that properly implement that. Rigorous attention to detail is just the beginning - extensive testing, documentation of big picture connections to related parts of the API, and keeping up with the "cutting edge" of efficiency, feature completeness, etc.

    Most of my coworkers don't have the attention span to complete anything significant at this level of rigor, and the ones who do are pushed by management to "be more productive" rather than make something that actually works 100% correctly.

  • by IorDMUX ( 870522 ) <> on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @10:00PM (#30384072) Homepage

    High Functioning Autism isn't really a condition that impairs people from doing more complex work.

    Indeed. I have done quite a bit of thinking/independent study on this issue, and I think the best way to describe the difference between an "Autistic" brain and a "Neurotypical" brain is by comparing a GPU to a CPU.

    A neurotypical or 'normal' brain is incredibly parallel, much like yon super-powered GPU's. This parallelism is what allows the average person to walk, chew gum, carry on a conversation, breathe, and at the same time remember that they left the front door unlocked. Scans of autistic brains, however, show markedly decreased inter-connectivity (and increased inner-connectivity) between the many regions of the brain [Citation 1 [] and 2 []]. Therefore, it seems that a brain affected by an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may, in some aspects, resemble the far more serially designed CPU.

    [Note: I understand that ASD can manifest itself very severely, extremely limiting the sufferer's interaction with the outside world. I also know that there are other theorized neurological mechanisms at work in ASD. For this though experiment, I want to look at an example HFA versus a comparable IQ neurotypical, to cut down on experimental "noise".]

    The popular high-functioning autism (HFA) labels "linear thinking" and "highly logical" can easily be traced back to a more serial brain, but there are plenty of other examples in the autism spectrum syndromes. ASD sufferers are also very vulnerable to sensory over-stimulation--especially from multiple senses simultaneously, as the data simply cannot be processed at the rate that it is arriving. At the same time, someone with ASD may be able to capture many more minor details of a single input (be it visual art, a complex symphony, etc.) than the average person. The focus on depth rather than breadth in a subject of study is a major characteristic of HFA.

    I have a fairly mild case of Asperger Syndrome (yes, professionally diagnosed... just listen to my point, okay?), so I have a few specific examples... For example, take my earlier walking and talking experiment: If I am carrying on a conversation while walking, I stop moving whenever I need to think about and formulate my next response. I was (unfortunately) well known in high school and college for my all-around clumsiness, and yet I have the fine motor control and "muscle memory" to beat the most tediously annoying NES games or to manipulate and solder miniature surface mount components. Similarly, I am a semi-professional trumpet player, but I cannot grasp the idea of using two hands at once on the piano to play two different rhythms, despite years of trying. I consider myself a fairly skilled driver, and even enjoy singing to the steering wheel... but as soon as I find myself in heavy traffic, I cannot carry a note nor remember the lyrics to anything on the radio. It gets turned off immediately. This also explains why I fail so miserably at the "cocktail party effect" [], as, from my perspective, I hear everyone in the room at once and there is no hope of picking out a single conversation.

    and people with these two conditions are the kinds of people who would can get good educations and be great programmers.

    Maybe it even goes back farther... Just a thought: what if our ancestral tribes benefited from having one or two members of the village who were driven to become advance scouts, staying away from the hubbub of a communal life but still sending back vital information and benefiting to the tribe as a whole? Just a thought...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @11:24PM (#30384608)

    Need to be a bit careful as there is a fair bit of variability with high level autistics. I know, I am one. I basically work as a programmer and database guy and I really like data cleaning etc but... When the, I suppose you could say, mini obsession, wears off it dies big time and you really don't want to do that any more. You want something else to get obsessed about for a while. The problem is you can get type-cast with people thinking " lets give this guy nothing but the boring repetitive stuff because he likes it and doesn't want new stuff". Well we are human and a bit of both is cool. But then I suppose that the companies that are doing the training have worked this out and take that into account. Quite frankly what sounds cool to me is going somewhere for a few weeks to de-rubbish their data and then having to go and do it again, but with different data. Trouble is I can get real emotional when I fix a big mess and then people proceed to mess it up again. And we can get real emotional about that!! Another side that "normals" might find weird/amusing is that going somewhere new as a consultant is the stressful part because you have to deal with new people and that can be quite a challenge. I've sort of learned to good "normal" act over the years. People know I'm a bit weird but very few have worked out specifically whats going on. But still you never get completely used to it. A new, messed up database, especially one you can re-arrange - bring it on baby, bring it on!!

  • QA Work (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @11:58PM (#30384784)

    I worked as a QA intern a few years ago testing a web interface, and would regularly come across small bugs that I'd ignore. They'd be cases where a label would take an extra line and throw the layout off, or something similar. I could have reported them, but I'd usually just just ignore them. The reason I'd ignore them was social, I didn't want the developers thinking I was an ass for reporting minor issues. Whereas someone with Autism would most likely ignore any social impact of reporting nitpicky.

  • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) * on Thursday December 10, 2009 @12:00AM (#30384796) Journal
    Testing software is certainly monotonus but if it's predictable then why do it at all?
  • this is true (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ILuvRamen ( 1026668 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @12:00AM (#30384802)
    I have mild aspergers and a controllable obsession with patterns and perfection and flaws in logic. I'm also a very, very skilled software tester (and programmer) so I guess it's true. I catch things that nobody else does and they seem so obvious to me. I've had a few contract testing jobs and I ripped those software packages a new one in every case. Once the designers stopped being pissed at me for finding so many problems, they fixed them and were happy they hired me :P So what if my brain doesn't associate names with faces with events and I have a poor concept of time, I'm going to pick out dozens of bugs in your software really quickly lol.
  • by Pink_Ranger ( 1024741 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @12:04AM (#30384824)

    rely on autistics for tasks needing massive concentration and accuracy, I'll put all my trust in their hands.

    The more I hear this sentiment echoed, the more I think they're the ones who came out right, and we're the ones who are broken.

  • by drseuk ( 824707 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @12:33AM (#30384948)

    I worked with someone with Asperger's Syndrome as part of a large Government Y2K bug "fixing" team (and it was fixing, not checking). Senior management had prioritised the fixes based on how much each database was "worth" (i.e., how much they paid for it) rather than, more sensibly, on how much the databases in question would affect citizens were they not to be fixed.

    The result of this was that three weeks before 1/1/2000, 50 databases critical for functions such as medical care, burials, garbage collection, liquor licences, care homes etc. had not been fixed. This work-experience chap with Asperger's who up until then had basically been the post room / tea-boy (as well as carrying out rudimentary IT tasks) offered to help.

    We let him join the team and gave him all the database documentation to read just to keep him quiet as we were busy enough. He sat reading it for two weeks and we got on with our work and left him to it.

    Then the tape arrived with a copy of all 50 databases on it for us to fix. Before we'd arrived for work that morning, he'd opened the post, loaded the tape and was fixing the databases one by one (having prioritised them well by importance without our intervention) at an unbelievably fast typing speed. Incredibly, as he finished the fixes for each database (which we obviously tested), it turned out that he had fixed it without error (so far as we could tell).

    He finished fixing the 50th and last database on 30/12/1999. The "post mortem analysis" (as far as we could tell) in early 2000 was that he'd fixed all 50 databases perfectly within a week.
  • What neurotypical folks may fail to realize is that Autism is a spectrum disorder. From what I've observed, most everyone who works in IT, at least in any technical capacity, resides on the Autism spectrum somewhere. From LFA to HFA to Aspergers to PDD-NOS to OCD to "quirky" to "nerdy"... etc. Pretty much you can substitute "geek" for "autistic" and be on safe ground. Bill Gates is autistic (clearly). Steve Jobs probably too but to a much less noticeable degree.
  • by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @01:57AM (#30385328)
    I've heard the same sentiment noted by a mother of autistic child, but for a different reason. She had to teach her boy to lie. A lot. For some reason, our social norms require us to lie more/less constantly.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 10, 2009 @02:44AM (#30385478)

    A lot of you are suggesting that high function Autism is mental retardation. It ISN'T!.

    Start with a strawman and carry on from there

    My 5 yr old son...was tested for three hours and its been found that he has slight Autism...has trouble age 2 he could tell you what every single car was in the parking...could read at age 3, he could write his name at age 4...if you break his routine, when he talks to you he will turn every conversation around to focus on what he is interested in. He has social skill problems when he deals with his peers who are of the same age...I personally think he has aspergers as he is very social and will will approach people and talk to them

    As a parent of more than two children I'm mystified as to why you even had him at the pediatrician. The behaviour you describe sounds not at all untypical. Five year old boys do have trouble remaining focussed on things in which they're less interested, no matter how intelligent they are, and they can often react strongly to changes in routine. That's not autism, it's normal.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 10, 2009 @02:45AM (#30385482)

    Yes, but...

    If your child can realize the the idiotic monotony of those "normal" people around himself, especially when he hits first grade he must be a problem.

    Just like my twins... now in grade 4.

    Social interaction is MORE important than listening to facts...
    Social interaction is MORE important then remembering the rules of the game...
    Social interaction is MORE important than the teacher dealing with the bully on the playground...

    Social interaction couldn't possibly be learned later on:
    After the bully dropped out of school, ( unemployed asshole )
    After the stupid games are over.

    You know:
    When real life starts.

    And God help you if you can remember what your teacher said THE FIRST TIME
    and you have to sit through your teacher explaining the same thing twenty-nine times to the idiots who can barely remember their own names...

    Good luck.
    I have such fond memories of school ;)
    and a very high regard for the current teachers.

  • by ajlisows ( 768780 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @02:59AM (#30385530)

    I don't really know that I believe that. I mean no offense to those techies who do have actual psychological problems that they battle each and every day with what I say here. These problems do exist and can make life harder.

    In my experience, younger techies seem to have this idea that they are really quirky or have some mental problem. It's almost a techie way of proving how cool you are. Heck, I'll even admit acted a little foolish in my early IT days to the point where I believed that I was all quirky and crazy.

    As I got older I realized that I just have some slightly different preference. I don't sleep as much as most people I know, I like to stay up later and don't like to get up early, and I like to learn new things (not a very common trait in America these days, sadly).

    A few Years ago I worked with two developers who were clearly OCD and had been diagnosed as such. They were the truly quirky ones...the guys walking around their cars every morning to check five times if their windows were up and doors were locked, washing their hands until the skin was raw...doing other truly bizarre things all the time. Seeing people who had actual psychological issues that they had to deal with daily made me think of some of my co workers who had declared themselves the "Craziest" or "Pretty OCD" or "Waaaay ADD" and I realized they rarely exhibited any symptoms and when they did so, it was when it seemed convienient to them...such as "It is really hard for me to get to work on time because of my OCD and ADD".

    Perhaps the desire to be different or have people think you are stranger than you really are is a type of disease in itself but it seems more of a Prima Donna/Pay attention to me thing in many Techies.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 10, 2009 @03:11AM (#30385568)
    Yea, try telling that to someone who counts seconds when to glance away when talking with someone. I rather not be that "Creepy guy who just stares at you."

    Aspergers is hard. VERY hard. Give me a week and I can learn any programing language under the sun, but it took more than 8 years AFTER high school to figure out how to relate to other people. Hell, my Mom died of cancer and step-dad from sucide a year apart. I see my sister breakdown for weeks and it just dosn't phase me in that way. Strong or phycotic, you be the judge.

    ADHD? You know what happens when that kicks in just right? You stop showing up for class or work. Maybe the only thing that gets you up in the morning is RPing on some MUD, burning though hours of Everquest. Hell, beating Balder's Gate 4 times in a row just because you can't hold a job enough to buy anything else. Programing? Sure, I can program. Only programs I WANT to make. Tell me to make some database I am not interested in and I am never getting it done. Give me some random untility that just decodes DTX5 compression in both Java and .NET? I spent weeks on that to just dump it like everything else.

    While it sounds like I am arguing with you, I honestly agree. It took the fact that I was skipping every other day at my job. A GOOD job I held for 5 years, even if I am underpaid and unappreciated. A job I COULD NOT lose to. Two sessions with a this psychologist and I already have a prescription with Adderal XR and its like I have been living in a god damn cave all my life. I have been in SUCH fear of even going to one that I have held off with excuse after excuse. I hate those people who claim to be both Aspergers and ADHD and have a nice wife and kids. That shit don't happen with somone who really has it.

    Just the thought of being known as being mentally broken scares me more than being broken itself.
  • by cheros ( 223479 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @07:03AM (#30386498)

    Mine taught himself to write from age 3 (using BBCs "words & pictures" series) - all we did was help him shape the characters and provide wagonloads of markers and notepads. At age 3.5 he was writing and reading so fluently that at the end of the year he and another girl at his school with similar talents were doing the reading for the nativity play. Next he discovered London Underground and learned the whole layout by heart (which I only discovered when I wondered aloud how I got from A to B and he proceeded to tell me off the top of his head). I am not sure yet if I should label him, but he *is* special (and very sweet).

    Aspergers and autism come in levels, it's not a binary thing. As long as the person is functioning you can work with them, but you'll have to accept them being different. This is where being literal can also help, and I thus like the whole idea of that company.

    I know an investor who has one separate company where he employs all those people your average HR manager wouldn't touch. They don't know 9 to 5, and hierarchy is alien to them. His return on investment is huge - this group solves practically every problem thrown at them, and fast.

    Me personally, I'm just being awkward because I'm trying to become a genius by reverse process. So far it's not working, but it's done wonders for clearing my social diary :-)

  • Re:Dupe (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zig007 ( 1097227 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @07:19AM (#30386564)

    If you say their are no excuses, then you are saying that at 45 a potential parent should always choose NOT creating a life, rather than creating a life that may have autism. That is valuing a life with autism as worse than no life at all.

    No it isn't. It's about not taking risks with other peoples' lives for the sake of self-gratification.
    It has nothing to do with valuation, the ones suffering are the autists themselves and not, at least mostly not to the same degree, their surroundings.
    On the contrary, they can, as is the subject of the article, be very valuable to society.
    But just because patient H.M., for example, was extremely valuable to the medical society, we would not wish his fate upon others??

    To me, it seems you're the one being confused and the one bringing life value into the argument. Again, it has nothing to do with valuation.

    If a woman meets the right man at 45 and decides to conceive a child completely regardless of reasons, it is with total disregard of totally known risks.
    If adoption isn't a sufficient substitute, then having a child should be avoided.

    And it's not only that. There are other things than autism, like downs and the like.
    It is about being too old when the grown up children need their parents help, it's about being to old to be substantially relevant to a teenage who lives in the now. Totally. Get it?

  • by maartendeprez ( 1672672 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @08:25AM (#30386856)

    I agree, autism is not retardation. Everyone has a slightly different way of thinking and being, whether because of genetic or experiential variability. Some of us do not get on well with their social environment, because they differ too much, or on the wrong points, from the cultural norms. But the "problem" is in the incompatibility, not in one side or the other. When it's one against many, however, the minority (or the ones with least legitimacy) will become regarded as "abnormal", as people who have a certain syndrome, though we might just as well say everyone else has a "syndrome".

    It even doesn't have to be a minority. The situation may be much more complex than a black and white division. If only enough people keep on carrying an ideal that never totally fits anyone, and if they keep on hiding their own "imperfection" because they are afraid to be "deviant", the ones who do show the despised traits - because they are too different, maybe, to be able to keep up the appearances, or because they feel imprisoned by what society imposes on them and, consciously or unconsciously, chose to do away with it - will still end up to be considered less fit, less worthy. Even these persons, for whom the ideal turns out to be a very negative thing, often keep on supporting it, by thinking they are "different" and "unable to attain" it.

    And there the labeling comes into play. A person may be relieved to find out he's "autistic". It may help him to get recognition, support and understanding from people around him, and his family and friends may be relieved and better able to give him a place. But it can also promote a negative self-image, rigidly structure other people's reactions - as if the person they deal with is only an instance of the "autist" type and noting else - and thereby impose yet another regime of norms and expectations on the "deviant" person. As long as the person concerned is happy with that - not problem. But we have to keep in mind the label is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy. At he same time as it is a road to a more or less culturally accepted way of being, it is a powerful device for society to keep the labeled person in check, even if never consciously designed for that purpose.

    As such, the label is a cultural construct, not a reflection of unquestionable, empirical reality. The only way to escape the restrictive simplifications imposed by the label, is to realize it's existence and to transcend it, to face what it hides, what lies underneath, in all it's complexity. Even though a full understanding is not withing human reach, we can try and use more sophisticated, colorful, and - precisely because such an understanding is unattainable - fluid and open conceptions.

    As for autism, while i'm aware that it is reified by scientific research, by standardized diagnosis, descriptions, therapies, statistics, organizations and popular conceptions, i'd argue that it's still a model, that there is no such thing as the ultimate autist, but only people, *human beings*, to whom this model, even if not fully applicable, is applied - and *ascribed*. As i said, and as everyone who knows an "autist" will probably agree with, people labeled autists are persons and should be dealt with as persons, not as a personage from a psychology manual, popular book or expert's description. Manuals will never fully describe what a person is like. They may be helpful, but only if we remain open to different realities, if we are willing to see the person we are dealing with not as an example of a certain category, but as a human being just as much, and on the same level, as ourself. I think the world would be a better place if we tried to do so, if we tried to be understanding to each other, regardless of alleged "syndromes", and to find ways - not in general, codified on a high level, but on the ground, in practical situations - so that everyone can feel okay with his or her place in society. It's idealized, i know, but we can try our best...

    What this means for the main s

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @08:53AM (#30387002) Homepage

    Well, at the very least, it's pretty clear that they didn't come out wrong, but with a very useful skill set. I have similar sentiments about ADHD: if you're in a group of cavemen going out hunting, you want someone in your group who will notice all the little things that folks who don't have ADHD ignore because that's not what they're focusing on. So if I have a task that involves looking around for anything unusual or interesting, I want someone with ADHD along, because he or she will find things I'll miss.

    In fact, any "disorder" that is as common as high functioning autism or ADHD often indicates that it's not a disorder at all, but more a personality type that the rest of us have decided was annoying to deal with. For instance, autistic people are the most likely to announce that the emperor is walking around naked, which is extremely inconvenient for anyone who is selling clothing that everyone claims they can see but no one can.

  • by mcvos ( 645701 ) on Thursday December 10, 2009 @11:27AM (#30388398)

    You know what's going on, you can analyse and understand it, but you're not really part of it. You don't have an intuitive feel for it like others do.

    Bleh, I wish. Analyzing and understanding both require observing something to begin with, took me years just to get that part sorted out.

    Don't get me wrong, it took me ages to figure that out too. Worked hard at it. And now I understand enough of it to know what I'm missing.

    (Honey, when you say "it's ok", does that mean you're not gonna be pissed off when I spend half the night playing games? No, not really? Ok, so why didn't you just fucking say so in the first place? Cue more passive-aggressive relationship stuff...)

    I've always been really clear about this: when you need something from me, ask me directly, or I won't notice. If you ask me if those pants make you fat, I'll probably answer that most likely it was the food. It works. We're both sufficiently aware of this and find it occasionally very funny. And I have a great wife. That also helps.

    Still, sometimes she forgets, and I don't notice, and I end up doing something that she doesn't like. But then she also knows it's her fault for not being more explicit.

    One of my favorite examples of Aspergers is the guy that you meet in the street that you vaguely know and greet with "hey man, how you doing", who then walks over to you and starts telling you his life's story.

    Oh yeah, I'm definitely that guy. I always tell people my life's story, even when they don't ask for it. And if someone asks me how I'm doing, I often give a slightly too honest answer.

    Also, I often have no idea if I really vagualy know someone, or if he just looks vagely like someone I vagely know. I'm bad at faces and even worse at names. Doesn't exactly help me in social situations either.

"The pyramid is opening!" "Which one?" "The one with the ever-widening hole in it!" -- The Firesign Theatre