Self-fulfilling Prophesies

Managers in high-tech firms both here and abroad are realizing that people with Asperger's syndrome are well suited to work in software quality assurance, among other areas. The benefits - to both sides - can be considerable

At first glance, there seems to be nothing unusual about Ester Zabar's classroom. Her students, who are learning about software quality assurance (QA ) at the offices of ECI Telecom in Petah Tikva, look like a typical group of computer geeks. On second thought, though, it's clear there's something different about this group. Maybe it's the unusual lilt in the speech of some of the students; maybe it's the various comments that one of them is constantly making; maybe it's the guy sitting next to me who is stamping his feet nonstop.

Zabar's nine students, who range in age from 20 to 40, have all been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, which is typically manifested in difficulties with emotional expression and social interaction. It is on the "mild" end of the autism spectrum, and people who have it have trouble deciphering social codes in everyday situations. Because of limitations in language comprehension, they are unlikely to grasp an expression that has a double meaning, or irony or sarcasm - although most people with Asperger's are of normal or above-average intelligence.

Ilya Shir - Yanai Yechiel - 10122011
Yanai Yechiel

For three years now, Zabar has been integrating people with Asperger's syndrome into high-tech jobs, after training them as QA and software-testing technicians. Her graduates have found employment in companies such as Kodak, Bank Hapoalim, HP and so on. This is not an obvious situation: Most people with Asperger's do not work in a field that suits their intellectual abilities, if they work at all.

It seems that the secret to Zabar's success is in being up front about their condition. With the help of Anat Ben Meir, an occupational therapist who specializes in autism, Zabar explains to prospective employers what the syndrome is, what sorts of challenges they can expect and how to respond. In addition to the professional training that Zabar offers, Ben Meir works with the students on the social skills they'll need to function in a regular workplace.

Zabar's class is quite lively, although she says she's had groups of students where no one ever talked - "even when they took breaks."

When she introduces the journalist from Haaretz to the class, one student wants to know what my political views are. This is no joke; he is totally serious.

Today's lesson is about bugs in computer programs. When Zabar mentions that in Israel there are 10,000 software QA personnel while in Denmark there are only 1,000, one student scolds, "That's boasting." Zabar explains that it is simply a fact and not boasting, and the lesson continues. This is one of the characteristics of Asperger's: People with the syndrome say what they really think, often without any "filtering" - which is something that bosses don't particularly like.

When the lesson is over, Zabar pulls out a small photo album and talks, with much excitement, about her graduates. Not all, but many of them have found employment.

"Most of the folks who come to this course were just sitting at home, living off a National Insurance Institute allowance or working in something that was beneath their ability," she explains. "It frustrates them, it reduces their motivation. These are not dumb people. They know they can do more. This course changes their lives. I open a door for them to a world where they can earn a dignified living and they have a great advantage there: They are fantastic when it comes to patience and accuracy, and to delving into details."

Zabar tells the story of a former student, M., who has a bachelor's degree in music and a teaching certificate, and worked for 15 years as a night watchman at a factory. For the last two years, he's been working half-time at a high-tech company. N., a 50-year-old man with a doctorate in chemical engineering, remained idle at home for long periods of time. "He wasn't able to hold down a job," Zabar says. "Two years ago, he became part of a QA team at a large company and he's been working there ever since."

A.'s story is especially moving, Zabar says: "He looks different, he walks hunched over, he barely talks and barely makes eye contact. I admit we accepted him to the course with a lot of hesitation. We were sure he wouldn't get through a job interview. I was afraid there was no chance of finding someplace that would hire him. But I saw he had a good command of English and an aptitude for computers.

"He worked very hard. He would record the lessons and listen to the tapes at home. He did well in the course. I contacted a certain company and said to the director: 'Listen, I have this fellow who can't handle an interview, but if you want to give him a chance, just let him work for two weeks and you'll see what he can do.' They gave him a chance and he's been working there for a year already, inspecting a very complex product, and they're very satisfied with him and he is satisfied too."

For her part, Ester Zabar also studied chemical engineering, at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, but she ended up going into the computer field. For 12 years she was a software developer for Israel Aircraft Industries; for 12 more she worked in QA at BMC and ECI. She always dreamed of combining social work and high tech. The opportunity came along four years ago, when she attended a conference in England where she heard a talk by Thorkil Sonne, a high-tech person from Denmark, who thrilled the audience with his personal tale. In 2004, Sonne, the father of a boy with Asperger's, founded a company called Specialisterne (The Specialists ), to train and employ people with Asperger's in the QA field.

That day, Zabar knew she'd found what she was looking for.

Zabar had no personal experience with people with Asperger's, but spent a year exploring the possibility of starting a similar project in Israel. Four years ago, she left her job and launched her program. In her first course, she had just four students.

"There are lots of QA courses," she relates. "Mine is relatively limited in terms of the scope of knowledge. I just open the door for these people to this world. Anyone who takes the course and has a feel for the profession can pursue it further, and some of my students have done that."

The difference between Zabar's and other courses in the field is her active assistance in finding employment for her graduates and efforts to help pave the way there. This is when she makes use of her extensive connections in the high-tech world - often specifically tailoring jobs to the abilities of the worker.

"It's a process in which we introduce our people - with their consent, of course - to the workplace," she explains. "Anat and I speak with the company director, with the staff, and with the direct boss. It is all done very carefully, with great sensitivity to the person's privacy. We explain to the employers what Asperger's is and what specific problems the person they are hiring has. We also give them tools to deal with them."

A few weeks ago, Ben Meir visited the class; she works with students on behavioral skills that are vital to getting along in the workplace. She has been working for 27 years with people who have autistic tendencies and also administers employment-aptitude testing for people with the syndrome. On this visit, she asked the students to stop for a moment and look at how they were sitting.

"One guy was sitting with legs wide open, all schlumpy, and another was sitting on the edge of the chair, stiff as a board," she relates afterward. "I direct their attention to this. I teach them how to sit on a chair when you want to make a good impression, such as in a job interview. How to dress for work. If you show up dressed sloppily, they'll think you're a slob. I talk to them about how to speak with people, how to fit in. Asperger's means they have a lack of social understanding. If two people are whispering in a room, a normal person would stay away and give them privacy. A person with Asperger's will walk up to them. I hold up a virtual mirror to them and show them how it looks to the other person. And each time they're in shock."

Are there applicants who aren't accepted to the course?

Ben Meir: "After Ester does the initial review I come in, and on the basis of a questionnaire and my experience, I screen out a few more people. Sometimes there's no choice. We had one older fellow who was very skilled in QA - I would rely on him completely as far as that goes - but he always expressed himself very bluntly. He was apt to tell his boss: 'You're an idiot.' I told him I had no problem with him doing that in the course, but that he had to work with a psychologist or a therapeutic group on behavioral skills. I'm very direct with them and I know they won't be offended. I tell it like it is."

Zabar talks about one student whom she placed at a high-tech company. "On his first day of work, the team sat down and explained the software to him. At the end of the day, they called me all worked up and said he sat there the whole day poker-faced; they couldn't tell if he understood what was explained to him. I called him and asked him. He said, 'Of course I understood.' So I said, 'Listen, when someone explains something to you and you understand - then tell them. Say 'I understand.' Say 'Okay.' The next day he started to do that.

"Most of the people who've been here on the course don't have friends. Not a single one. And you look at them and say: how can this be? They're nice looking, they're great folks - and their best friend is the computer. They always say that work is the best therapy. I hope I'm helping them somehow."

Ilya Shir, 40, from Jerusalem, is the oldest student in Zabar's present course. He sits in the back row, and actively participates in the lesson. He is married, with a three-year-old daughter, and has a master's degree in history. He has switched jobs many times. He is currently employed as a supermarket cashier. Like many people his age with Asperger's, he struggled socially in his childhood and went undiagnosed for a long time; it was only two years ago that he was told he has Asperger's.

He attended Rene Cassin High School, served in the army as a supply clerk and then went to university. "It was always hard for me," he says. "And it was hard to put your finger on things and know what the problem was." He worked as a supply clerk in various places, always far from interaction with other people, such as at a record store, a hotel and a government office, among other places.

"As soon as I had to be in contact with people at work, I couldn't hack it," he admits. "When I worked in the hotel, I was supposed to ensure that the supplies arrived, and dealing with the suppliers was very hard for me and only exacerbated the problem."

The psychotherapy he received as an adult centered on his inability to form a romantic relationship. "I wasn't able to form ties with women," he says. "Later on, I learned that this was only part of the bigger picture. That I have a short circuit in communication with people. I broadcast on another frequency. People tell me one thing and I think that it's something else. Some of it has lessened over the years due to experience, but I always feel alien."

He met his wife when he worked at the university bookstore.

Shir says he loves to speak English, and does so with colleagues at his present job. "I have this thing about languages," he explains. "I feel more comfortable in English. It's easier for me to communicate. At the supermarket they don't get it. The other workers can barely say yes and no in English."

He hopes to change his employment prospects with the skills he's learning at AQA (Zabar's company ). "I see this as a chance to obtain employment stability and security," he says. "Granted, no one is promising I won't be fired, but this is the first time my employer will be aware that I have a problem called Asperger's. Now I'm acquiring the tools for how to behave in the workplace and my future boss will also know that if I said or did something, it's part of my problem."

Are people with Asperger's happy working in QA? If you ask Chen Gershoni, working in that field hasn't done much for him. He is 40 and lives in Rehovot with his mother and grandmother. Up until eight years ago, Gershoni worked in software QA; he hasn't worked since, out of choice.

Gershoni is one of the founders and the spokesperson of The Autistic Community of Israel (ACI), which promotes public awareness of autism as being within the normal range of human behavior. Gershoni says his goal in life is to advance the autistic community, but the organization currently has only 20 members who are not in close contact.

Gershoni: "When I worked, it was very hard for me to integrate into normative society. I worked at several high-tech companies. I also studied computer science at university for a while but then I gave it up. I felt very lonely in these places, and it didn't give me anything. It meant showing up for work, mumbling hello, working alone all day and then going home. In regular society, I actually felt very lonely."

Perhaps if you'd had some "mediation" eight years ago to help you deal with coworkers at the companies where you were employed, it would have been easier for you to fit in?

Gershoni: "Perhaps. The thing is that I don't like feeling like a minority and therefore it's unreasonable for me to try to fit in somewhere where I'm perceived as an outsider. Being in the company of other autistic people is what liberates me, and makes me feel that I'm in my natural place. I've traveled abroad for this six times, to organized meetings of autistics. I'm interested in those who live independently, who are verbally expressive. On the Internet and in forums abroad, a whole civilization of high-functioning autistics is now being created, of people who speak to each other via the computer. There are tens of thousands of autistics who correspond with each other and I'm a part of that."

Gershoni spends his days in front of the computer. He has no other social life. He goes out for walks sometimes. "I have no interest in changing," he says.

Lachan Shazar, 25, also works in QA. He completed Zabar's course over a year ago and has since been working two days a week at the EZchip company in Yokne'am. He loves his job and would be happy to work more. "I have excellent conditions there," he says.

We meet at his parents' home in Haifa. Lachan lives in a sheltered living arrangement (in a house with five roommates and a counselor ) in Carmiel. He is a slender fellow who speaks very articulately, but slowly. His days are full: Besides his job in Yokne'am, he works twice a week at the library of Western Galilee College in Acre, and once a week he takes a psychology course at the Open University in Haifa. On weekends, he visits his parents.

Despite his busy life and various pursuits, however, he is lonely. When he's not at work, he's sitting alone in his room. "For me, the Asperger's makes it very hard to have social ties," he says. "It's hard for me to form relationships and even harder for me to sustain them. I'm fairly introverted. I like to be in my room, to do things in my room. It's not that I don't like people, but I just don't like being with everyone. There are people I like to be with, like my tutor, whom I meet with regularly. And of course, my family. My social life, if you can call it that, amounts to Magic Card tournaments, every once in a while, which I go to in Haifa. I'd like to have more [of a social life] but I don't know how."

In his childhood, he was treated by a number of psychiatrists and psychologists, but it did nothing to relieve his distress, says Shazar. Finally, at 17, he was diagnosed with Asperger's, after his parents read an article about the syndrome.

"Suddenly it all made sense," says his father, Yair Shazar, a pensioner. "Throughout his childhood there were social difficulties, he had trouble functioning in society and at school. He would shut himself up in his room. No therapy helped."

After doing his national service, volunteering with the Shema organization that helps hearing-impaired students, Lahan studied at the University of Haifa for three years and earned a bachelor's degree in East Asian studies and English. He never worked in either field. He came to the job interview at EZchip accompanied by Zabar, after prepping in her course for just this moment.

"I like it at work," he says now. "I don't have direct contact with most of the people there. I'm in regular contact with the head of the team and with one other person, who writes the software that I run. They're nice people. I go with them to lunch, we chat, and it's nice. But I know this isn't what it means to have friends."

Is the work interesting? Lachan doesn't seem too excited about it: "I run the software, I don't understand what all these lines running before me are. I know how to identify a problem, I don't know what causes it."

"Employment for somebody like him is very important," his father explains. "Employers for the most part aren't willing to give somebody like him a chance, because that requires a certain concession on the employer's part. Someone like Lachan needs assistance. It means hiring a person with certain limitations instead of a normal person. In the business world, this is called social involvement, contributing something that isn't measured in money. Although maybe there's more awareness today, I think this is still one of the main reasons why people with Asperger's don't find employment that matches their abilities."

In recent years, QA has become popular as a field of employment for people with Asperger's syndrome. Years before, largely because of the same character traits, many of them worked in cataloging information in archives and warehouses. The change to employment in QA was brought about by the Danish company founded by Thorkil Sonne. In interviews in Denmark and elsewhere, he says that, like any father, he worries about the future of his child; in his case, his son was diagnosed with Asperger's at a young age. He noticed when the boy was little that he had an unusual aptitude for details and precision.

People with Asperger's have excellent memories and an eye for the smallest of details, he said in an interview. They have a built-in way of working, a passion for details and for structured repetition. In other words, he declared, they are born for work in QA.

Sonne's motto is to turn the disadvantage into an advantage. In 2004, he left his job at a telecommunications company, mortgaged his house and opened his company, in which he trains and employs dozens of people on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. The company offers QA and data-inspection services to leading companies in Denmark and Sweden, and has attracted interest from many other countries, opening branches in Iceland, Scotland, Switzerland and Austria.

"The needs of the people who work here are similar to the needs of regular people," says Sonne. "They also want to find a place in the labor market and they also want their talents to be respected. I've seen people with autism who have so many talents that regular workers lack."

Specialisterne is apparently the first company in the world which concentrates solely on hiring workers from the autism spectrum, and its business model is currently being studied at Harvard University. Prof. Robert Austin of Harvard, who examined the model, said in an interview that the question is whether it can really work. Social initiatives need to change people's outlooks so they can compete on a business basis, he added - not on a humanitarian basis.

An Israeli couple from Chicago, Moshe and Brenda Weitzberg, founded a similar company, Aspiritech, which began operating in 2010. The company employs 13 people with Asperger's who provide QA services to outside companies.

"We're not a profitable company yet," says Moshe Weitzberg in a phone conversation. "Right now, about half of our costs are covered by donations."

Weitzberg, 60, went to the United States in 1982 with his wife Brenda to do postdoctoral studies. He says they stayed there largely because they saw they could obtain better treatment for their son, Oren, who was diagnosed with the syndrome at age 14. Weitzberg worked for years as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry and as a university lecturer. Three years ago, he retired from teaching and founded Aspiritech, following the Danish model, in part to provide a suitable workplace for his son, who had turned 32 and was working as a bagger at a supermarket.

"Our model is fundamentally different from Ester Zabar's model," he says. "With us, the people don't go out to work in other companies - they're all employed here - and we provide our services as a company. The difference is tremendous. I think the workers here feel more comfortable with one another. Here in our office they've created wonderful relationships. It's just hard to believe. At first, each one sat in his own corner. Alone. But then, since I knew that quality is what would make or break us, I told them that if they found a problem, they should tell another worker about it.

"While this was not my intention, this situation gave rise to amazing cooperation. Bit by bit they moved their work stations to the center of the office. Today they all sit and work together. And I hear their parents talking about the improvement - about how some need less medication now, too. If you put a person like this in a regular high-tech company, he'll sink into a depression. But here, together, they just blossom."

How is the company doing financially?

Weitzberg: "I personally manage everything on a volunteer basis. We don't have enough work yet for the company to stand on its feet, but we're getting there. My job is to persuade other companies to give us work. There are companies that don't want it to be known that we are the ones providing services to them, and there is certainly still a stigma that must be overcome."

Igal Levi, head of systems inspections for Kodak in Israel, which specializes in digital printing, has employed one of Zabar's graduates for a year and a half. "At first we were worried, his pace was slow," he admits. "The team leader worked closely with him and then we discovered that he was finding all kinds of bugs that had escaped the notice of everyone else. Unlike other people, he doesn't hang out with friends, he doesn't go for chitchat; he just works and he does an excellent job. His ability to learn independently, to write reports and to describe flaws is incredible. Socially speaking, he eats here with everyone, and sometimes he'll surprise you with a smile or a 'good morning.' He does his work in the most professional way possible and I always say that I could use a few more like him."

Michal Levy-Biton, director of placement services at Beit Eckstein (a center that offers vocational training, employment solutions and other assistance to people with special needs ), oversees a team of coordinators that handle 80 adults with Asperger's and seeks workplaces for them - after a month-long process that includes constructing an employment profile with the help of professional evaluations.

"Ninety-five percent of our graduates have work," she says. "Are they employed in jobs that utilize their abilities, in places where they would like to be employed? That's another question."

Levy-Biton explains that there's something misleading about people with Asperger's: Because their disability isn't always noticeable, society and/or the employer expects them to integrate easily into the workplace. "Even with a normal person, social skills really come into play in the workplace. So just think what it means to have a disability there."

What are the most common difficulties people with Asperger's face at work?

Levy-Biton: "Since they don't read social codes correctly, sometimes they think that if someone is nice to them at work then he's their friend. Often this is not the case and then big problems are created. Because the next day, this person who they thought was a friend will offer a comment on some professional matter - and they'll take it very personally and hard.

"In every workplace, when the boss is having a bad day, he's uptight and less nice. Someone with Asperger's usually takes this very hard, even if the boss' behavior has nothing to do with him. He is liable to interpret the behavior as meaning 'He doesn't want me' or 'He wants to fire me.'"

How open is Israeli society to hiring people with disabilities?

"I've been working in placement for eight years. I have to say that each year there has been an improvement; there's more openness, more readiness to accept, to hire and to integrate such employees. But it's not like I can tell you that I show up and companies open their doors to me and say 'Welcome!' We're still far from that. High tech in general is a tricky field. You'd expect a high-tech company that is doing millions of dollars of business to be able to take in a disabled person. But it doesn't work that way. Because at these types of companies, the emotional dimension is less strong. Time is money. They have less patience and less ability to deal with people with Asperger's. So there is still a long way to go." W