People with autism thrive as software testers

THE software testers at Aspiritech are a collection of characters.

Katie Levin talks nonstop. Brian Tozzo hates driving. Jamie Specht is bothered by bright lights, vacuum cleaners and the feel of carpeting against her skin. Rider Hallenstein draws cartoons of himself as a DeLorean sports car. Rick Alexander finds it unnerving to sit near other people.

This is the unusual workforce of a US start-up 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 are often highly skilled with computers

Aspiritech, a non-profit organisation in Highland Park, Illinois, nurtures these skills. 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 HandHold Adaptive, which took a chance on Aspiritech to test an iPhone app. “There is a pride in their product you don’t usually see in this type of work.”

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.

The Weitzbergs modelled Aspiritech on a successful Danish company called Specialisterne — “the Specialists” — whose clients include Oracle and Microsoft.

This year, Aspiritech projects $120,000 in revenue.

“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.

The exact unemployment rate for adults with autism is unknown, but it’s thought to be high, Standifer said.

“We don’t know how many adults have autism and, because of that, we don’t know their rate of unemployment,” he said.

“We do know from tracking adults just emerging from high school that they are having great difficulty finding jobs.”

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