Autistic good software testers

Autistic good software testers

This is the unusual workforce of a US startup that specialises in finding software bugs by harnessing the talents of young adults with autism. Traits that make great software testers — intense focus, comfort with repetition, memory for detail — also happen to be characteristics of autism. People with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, have normal to high intelligence and often are highly skilled with computers.

Aspiritech, a nonprofit in Highland Park, Ill., nurtures these skills while forgiving the quirks that can make adults with autism unemployable: social awkwardness, poor eye contact, being easily overwhelmed. The company’s name plays on the words “Asperger’s,” “'spirit” and “technology.”

Clients, nine companies in Aspiritech’s first two years, have been pleased. “They exceeded my expectations,” said Dan Tedesco of Shelton, Conn.-based HandHold Adaptive, which took a chance on Aspiritech to test an iPhone application.

Founders
Aspiritech was founded by Moshe and Brenda Weitzberg after their son, Oran, now 32, was fired from a job bagging groceries. Oran was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 14. He now works at Aspiritech. “He went from failing at bagging groceries to being one of the best software testers on our team,” said Brenda Weitzberg.

The Weitzbergs modeled Aspiritech on a successful Danish company called Specialisterne, or “the Specialists.” Specialisterne also employs software testers with autism. Its satisfied clients include Oracle and Microsoft. Other companies in Belgium, Japan and Israel are either hiring or training adults with autism as software testers.

This year, Aspiritech projects $120,000 in revenue, with 60 per cent coming from donations and 40 per cent from clients. The Weitzbergs hope to raise the client revenue to 50 per cent next year.

“There have been a couple of attempts in the US and Aspiritech is the one that’s making it,” said Scott Standifer of the University of Missouri’s Disability Policy and Studies office and the organiser of a national conference on adults with autism and employment.

Since Asperger's syndrome didn't become a standard diagnosis until the early 1990s, many of Aspiritech's software testers were adults when they first learned they were on the autism spectrum. They are pioneers, the first generation of adults with Asperger's.

Katie Levin, 35, was diagnosed in her late 20s with Asperger's. As a child, she'd been labeled as mentally ill. “Asperger’s is not a mental illness,” she said.  She tests software and runs Aspiritech’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Rick Alexander, 24, another tester, has a degree in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology and completed an internship developing software for the city of Chicago. I have a lot of social anxiety. I don’t like meeting new people,” said Alexander, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a teenager. Like many of the other testers, he lives with his parents.

He’d rather be a software developer than a tester, he said. But selling himself in a job interview is “very difficult for me.”

Aspiritech provides meaningful work (pay is $12 to $15 an hour) in a relaxed environment where bosses never yell if you’re late and nobody minds if you need to be alone for a while. What’s more, the company is building social skills. The software testers, in their 20s and 30s, are trained to work together and they take part in organised outings: miniature golf, bowling, eating at a restaurant.

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