Could you partner with a “Rain Man”?

You might remember the 1988 film Rain Man, about a profoundly autistic man (played by Dustin Hoffman). His savant abilities enable him to beat Las Vegas casinos at blackjack, making his formerly-estranged brother a fortune.

What if you could do that? Today, I’ll show you how the idea isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

The level of disability Dustin Hoffman’s character has is pretty extreme. Many autistic people are nothing like as impaired. In fact, you probably already know some of them – perhaps without realising it. They tend to be attracted to technological or detail-driven careers; they frequently have rigid personal habits; and they often struggle in social situations. I’m not clinically autistic myself, but I certainly have some of those traits.

The opportunities to profit by employing autistic people are typically a lot more ordinary than beating casinos. However, they are nevertheless rather common – and hence very profitable. Furthermore, this way of viewing human resources is something that goes far beyond autism. There’s a whole movement associated with identifying and using ”neurodiversity” in the workplace. It’s so promising, that I’ve personally invested in this space.

Today, I’m interviewing Kurt Schöffer from Auticon – an IT consulting business that only employs autistic people as consultants. I have no financial interest in this firm, and it has (of course) not paid for this exposure.

AL: What’s Auticon all about, and how did it start up?

KS: Auticon was founded in Berlin in 2011 by Dirk Müller-Remus, who has a son diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. That’s a form of “high functioning” autism. Speaking to adults with the same diagnosis, Dirk found that most of them had degrees in physics, mathematics or computer sciences – yet they were stacking shelves in supermarkets, unemployed or in early retirement.

Auticon appointed me as CEO in 2013 to grow and expand the social enterprise. I was also an original investor in Auticon, and so it’s natural that I’m now leading the company’s expansion in the UK and France.

Today, Auticon employs more than 100 people across Germany, France and the UK. Our consultants are sought after for complex IT projects by over one-third of the German Stock Index (DAX), including blue chip clients, Siemens and Allianz. In addition, the client list is growing to include a number of SMEs.

AL: What does an autistic person’s CV typically look like?

KS: CVs often aren’t as straightforward as those of non-autistic persons. Often, an autistic person enjoys learning and developing their skills – but struggles with mainstream education. The same applies to work environments. Technical expertise often isn’t enough to succeed.

Just to give you an example of a typical CV: we have a consultant who had been unemployed for seven years before joining Auticon. For seven years, society had concluded that this person hasn’t got anything to contribute to the labour market – even though they are fluent in 14 programming languages.

AL: So what you’re doing is basically forcing employers to ignore irrelevant factors, focusing only on the critical skills?

KS: Exactly. There is such a high demand for skilled people on one hand; on the other hand, we have this vast pool of skilled people who find it difficult to get a job through the conventional recruitment processes. Bringing those two together is what motivates me personally.

AL: Are autistic employees really that different?

KS: The UK alone has more than 700,000 autistic citizens. Many of these people have extraordinary talents. Auticon works with autistic adults who have a strong interested in complex logical or mathematical structures. They are able to concentrate for prolonged periods of time – even if tasks are highly repetitive or would be perceived as boring by others. Many have an extremely good intuition to spot errors or mistakes, which makes them particularly qualified for jobs in the IT industry.

One of the most astounding talents is that many Auticon employees see patterns. They recognise patterns in nature, politics, history, social interactions – or code. This puts them at a significant advantage when analysing large amounts of data; working on software; or in compliance projects.

However, many adults with Asperger syndrome find it difficult to cope with social interactions and with the communication in typical workplaces. This is why Auticon offers the support of specifically-trained in-house job coaches. Job coaches make sure that our consultants are content with their workplace and are able to concentrate on their work.

AL: What type of projects work well for autistic employees?

KS: We have defined five main business segments that neatly align with the strengths of our autistic employees. Our consultants work in the areas of quality management, transformations, data, security or in compliance projects. They can certainly do much more than software testing! Other skills include test automation, software development, data analysis, etc. They do these things with a precision and creativity that often exceeds the output of non-autistic co-workers. Autistic team members additionally produce novel ideas to approach complex problems, because of their different way of thinking.

Other than that, Auticon works like a regular consulting business: the client has an IT-related problem and we have motivated consultants who can support. Our consultants usually work on site with our clients.

AL: Can you tell me more about the challenges of integrating autistic employees?

KS: Employers may be a little wary in the beginning, but most quickly realise how little it takes to integrate the autistic person into their team.

However, it’s important to issue precise instructions and not dilute conversations too much with small talk. This can often have a nice add-on effect within the company – most employees appreciate a structured workload and straightforward communication – whether they’re autistic or not.

AL: What’s the opposite of autism, and how could people with this type of mind be useful to a firm?

KS: The opposite of autism is hard to define as every autistic person is different – it’s a three-dimensional spectrum. The business world already seems dominated by extrovert, overselling managers. However, an extrovert person with very good social skills and high flexibility might be a good fit for a management, sales or customer services position.

AL: What other disabilities or challenging traits can be an advantage to an employer?

KS: Any form of heterogeneity is good for business as different points of views yield different information and enhance the quality of products and services.

For example, there is a Swiss company that employs blind people to perform cancer screenings – their enhanced tactile sense contributes real business value here.

AL: Do you think that there may one day be a cure for autism – and if so, would that be a good thing?

KS: No and no, even though Google, and Autism Speaks, are investing heavily into it. Remember: in the 70s people tried to cure homosexuality.

Many of the smartest people in the world, including great scientists and artists, are autistic – or were suspected to be. Why would we want to get rid of that?

AL: Should employers be routinely screening for autistic traits at recruitment stage – and if they did, how would it help?

KS: Yes. Companies as well as employees obviously benefit from a good match between a job and the person’s traits and skills. The person who speaks the loudest, or sells themselves the best at interview, isn’t necessarily the best person for the business.

AL: Taking a longer-term view, how do you think the recruitment industry will change, to take account of neurodiversity?

KS: I do think that there is a trend towards greater awareness and understanding of different types of minds. This may be related to the fact that autism and other mental health diagnoses are on the rise. Many CIOs tell me that their teams are too homogenous. They need people who think differently, and who can develop innovative solutions. There is of course still is a long way to go in many corporations.


What do you think of the emerging trend to seek out specific neurotypes in recruitment? Is it all about finding the best person for the job – or should we avoid pigeonholing people, based on their brain structure? As usual, we’re waiting for your feedback – andrew@southbankresearch.com.

Best,

Andrew Lockley
Exponential Investor

Category: Genetics and Biotechnology

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