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Software company hires autistic adults for specialized skills

Software company hires autistic workers for unique skills 04:23

For much of his adult life, 28-year-old Patrick Viesti has worked to keep the signs of Asperger's syndrome at bay, but even after a successful college career, finding a job was not easy.

"To truly be honest, I would have to say it was quite difficult," Viesti said.

Viesti said he had come off stiff or monotone during the interview process, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller. However, his luck changed thanks to the software company he now works for. SAP recruited him and a number of other new hires this year because of their autism.

"Someone is willing to give them a chance, to say to them, 'I want you for your skills, I want you for the experience that you bring to the table,'" Viesti said.

A new study recently found that each case of autism costs $2.4 million over a lifetime, including the expense of special education and lost productivity for their parents. Meanwhile, 85 percent of autistic adults are jobless or underemployed.

SAP's program is the brainchild of Thorkil Sonne whose 17-year-old son Lars is autistic. He realized that while those with autism might lack the social skills recruiters are looking for, they possess many attributes high on their radar as well: intelligence and memory, the ability to see patterns and attention to detail on repetitive tasks.

"If we could use skills like I saw among people with autism in software testing, data analysis, quality control, that would be phenomenal," Sonne said. "There is no reason why we should leave these people unemployed when they have so much talent and there are so many vacant jobs in the high tech sector."

An important part of leveraging the unique skills of autistic workers is creating a comfort zone.

For example, employees with autism may suffer low self-esteem and feel stressed, but a solution to that is clearly stated goals. Also, failing to "get" the water cooler talk or sarcasm can be helped by direct communication.

Jose Velasco heads up SAP's "Autism at Work" program.

"What we teach is clarity in communications, empathy, try to understand, put yourself in someone else's shoes," Velasco said.

As the father of two autistic children, Velasco recognizes it's important to train all employees for this new workforce, not just those with autism.

"Most importantly, they need to be aware that this condition exists, and it is in the best benefit of the company to employ people that bring this type of skill set," he said.

Meantime, as Viesti digs into his job as an IT project associate, his Asperger's is out in the open, but he'd rather showcase his talents. He said when he meets someone on the job, they need to know "that I want to be able to work with them, bring out the very best within them."

"What they see is exactly who I am," Viesti said.

SAP has hired 40 autistic workers at six locations globally. There's no data yet on whether the program's working, but the company tells CBS News there's anecdotal evidence the special skills these new hires bring are already merging well with their new teams.

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