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Asperger's syndrome gets in way of work? Not at this startup

Two adults with Asperger's syndrome, Oran Weitzberg, left, and Rick Alexander, celebrate a breakthrough, at Aspiritech, a nonprofit enterprise that specializes in finding software bugs, as they test a new program in Highland Park, Ill. AP

Think Asperger's syndrome makes it impossible to hold down a job? Meet the software testers at a new U.S. startup: 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.

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And they all have the mild form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome.

Turns out, traits that make great software testers - intense focus, comfort with repetition, and memory for detail - also happen to be characteristics of autism.

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 is a play on the words "Asperger's," "spirit" and "technology."

After their 32-year-old autistic son, Oran, was fired from a job bagging groceries, Moshe and Brenda Weitzberg founded Aspiritech. "He went from failing at bagging groceries to being one of the best software testers on our team," said Brenda Weitzberg.

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. But most research dollars have gone toward studying only children with autism, while adults have been neglected, said Molly Losh, an autism researcher at Northwestern University.

"When you're a child, the school is very concerned with you, the state is very concerned with you," Rich Alexander, 24, another tester, said. Organizations help adults with autism, he said, but "you need to approach them and for somebody with Asperger's syndrome, it's very difficult to do the approaching."

Enter Aspiritech. The startup 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, 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. For many of them, software testing is not going to be their lifelong career, Lazar said, "but while they're here they're going to improve their job skills and they're going to learn what kind of behavior is expected on the job and they're going to have more to put on their resumes."

What do clients think?

"They exceeded my expectations," said Dan Tedesco of HandHold Adaptive, who 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."

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