Statistics on the unemployed have been dominating the news for months.
And while the current portrait of the jobless might seem dire, consider this: According to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 20 percent of the disabled population in the country has work.
But Aspiritech, a nonprofit in the suburbs of Chicago, is trying to help improve the job outlook for people with Asperger's and high-functioning autism.
The company trains people in data entry and computer program testing — skills that come naturally to many with the disorder.
Brian Tozzo is making sure programs like Yahoo Messenger and AOL interact properly with a cell phone. He types a message into his phone and pushes send.
"There it is — 'Hello, how are you?' " Tozzo says. "And on the PC you can see the same message, 'Hello, how are you?' and it passes, hooray!"
Tozzo marks it down as a success in a spreadsheet that has hundreds, even thousands of repetitive tests.
At a different desk, Alan Sun is training with a similar list. "It definitely helps utilize my computer skills and lets me use them to help others," Sun says. "So, at least I'm seeing how my computer skills can be potentially useful to society."
Brenda Weitzberg, the founder of Aspiritech, says employment is so much more than a paycheck. "It is structure to the day," she says. "It is sense of self-worth, value."
A Natural Fit
Weitzberg started the business because she felt frustrated with the lack of job resources for her 30-year-old son.
She says software testing is the perfect fit for people like him, with autism spectrum disorder. "They're very focused on detail," Weitzberg says. "Able to do highly repetitive work, able to spot imperfections."
Aspiritech is relatively new and started with $25,000 in private donations. So far, it's trained eight testers. And the company just signed its first contract for work that will start later this year.
Weitzberg's inspiration is a six-year-old Danish company called Specialisterne.
Difference Not A Disadvantage
Thorkil Sonne is the founder of Specialisterne. The company currently has three dozen consultants with autism spectrum disorder doing software testing and data entry.
"[The company] actually sees autism — the autism characteristics — as a potential competitive advantage," Sonne says.
He came up with the idea after his son was diagnosed with autism, and he says he thinks the outlook for his son has substantially improved since the company's inception. "I think that there's a much more positive attitude," Sonne says, "And openness in the business sector in Denmark."
Sonne's hoping to spread the model worldwide.
Copenhagen Business School professor Robert Austin has studied Specialisterne's business. "It does something that a lot of other models that hope to help people don't do," Austin says. "It aligns the interest of the people being helped with the interest of a business."
Austin says it's a hopeful model that he'd like to see work.
It's one that doesn't view difference as disadvantage.