North Shore company employs mildly autistic to test software
BY KARLA K. JOHNSON September 24, 2011 9:02PM
Software testers Oran Weitzberg (left) and Rick Alexander celebrate a breakthrough last week at Aspiritech. | M. Spencer Green~AP
Updated: November 10, 2011 5:01PM
The software testers at Highland Park’s 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 work force of a U.S. startup that specializes 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 North Shore nonprofit, 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 HandHold Adaptive, based in Shelton, Conn. which took a chance on Aspiritech to test an iPhone application. “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,” Brenda Weitzberg said.
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 percent coming from donations and 40 percent from clients. The Weitzbergs hope to raise the client revenue to 50 percent next year.
The unemployment rate for adults with autism is unknown, but it’s thought to be high, Scott Standifer of the University of Missouri’s Disabilities Policy and Studies office 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.”
A 2009 U.S. Department of Education survey found the employment rate for young adults with autism was on par with that for deaf and blind young adults, and well below the rate of those with blindness alone or learning disabilities or traumatic brain injuries, Standifer said.
Because 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 had been labeled as mentally ill.
“Asperger’s is not a mental illness,” she said. “I definitely feel like I identify with the Asperger’s community more than I did with the mental illness community.” 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. He’d rather be a software developer than a tester, he said. But selling himself in a job interview is “very difficult for me,” he said.
Aspiritech provides meaningful work that pays $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, who are in their 20s and 30s, are trained to work together and they take part in organized outings: miniature golf, bowling, eating at a restaurant.
“We want to improve social skills among people who tend to be socially isolated,” said Marc Lazar, Aspiritech’s autism specialist.