National News

Program links people with autism to IT jobs

Logan Olafson (left) and Matthew Ford work on electronics in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Meticulon -
Logan Olafson (left) and Matthew Ford work on electronics in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Meticulon
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By Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

CALGARY - Organizers of a pilot project say the very factors that pose challenges for people with autism could be qualities that help them excel in the information technology sector.

The project in Calgary aims to train and find jobs for individuals with autism to carry out software testing as well as to oversee quality assurance and data verification.

The federal government recently allocated $150,000 to the Sinneave Family Foundation and Autism Calgary's not-for-profit organization, Meticulon, for the project.

"At the moment, only about 20 per cent of individuals who have autism spectrum disorder are employed. We think in the next 10 years we can double that number," said Tom Collins, president of the Sinneave Foundation.

"We look for people who are comfortable with repetitive types of tasks, who have a real attention for detail, individuals who are comfortable doing the same thing and being very precise about it.

"If you and I do data entry all day long, we have about a four to five per cent error rate. Someone on the spectrum with the kinds of skills we need will have a negligible error rate."

"People with autism, many have precise attention to detail and the ability to focus for much longer periods of time," added Dr. Margaret Clarke, senior vice-president and scientific adviser for the Sinneave Foundation.

Autism disorders are characterized by social and communication difficulties, stereotyped or repetitive behaviours and interests and, in some cases, cognitive delays.

The Western Economic Diversification office predicts that by 2016 Canadian employers will need to hire some 106,000 IT workers. That's expected to pose a significant recruitment challenge.

Information technology is the application of computers and telecommunications equipment to store, retrieve and transmit data, often in the context of a business or other enterprise.

Software company Mobility Quotient, which produces apps such as JustWine for wine enthusiasts, has hired one of the Meticulon students to punch in data about wine-tasting events. It can be tedious work, but CEO Nikhil Sonpal said the employee does her job to a T.

"She doesn't travel. She's uncomfortable travelling, but she says she goes on a vacation every time she goes to work, because she can look at these different places that she would never go to that have these wine events," Sonpal said.

"She's excited every time she comes to work. I don't believe in labels. Words don't matter to me. It's results."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 children in communities in the United States were identified with autism spectrum disorder in 2013.

The report said the disorder is almost five times more common among boys than girls.

The pilot project is scheduled to last for one year.

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