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Workers with Asperger’s and Autism Are Not Cheaper Labor

Workers with Asperger’s and Autism Are Not Cheaper Labor

UPDATE, May 9. Through this post, I have been in contact with someone who knows more about Square One. I’m hoping to learn more about the company and find out more about its program for workers on the autism spectrum. As such programs are all very new, we — certainly me as a parent, ever worried about my son’s future — all have much to learn from each other.


Square One, a Los Angeles-based software and design firm, has started a small pilot program (with three people) to design a software-testing training program for people on the autism spectrum. According to Business Week, company co-founder Chad Hahn and his wife, Shannon, who works with individuals with developmental disabilities, are trying to create a “work environment that would be friendly to those on the autism spectrum,” many of whom especially struggle with social interactions.

In the U.S., the unemployment rate for  individuals Asperger’s Syndrome could be as high as 80%. While social situations and communicating with others may be difficult, some autistic individuals excel using computers and technology and, prior to Square One, some other companies have sought to draw on these abilities. In 2004, Thorkil Sonne, a Danish software engineer with an autistic son, founded Specialisterne, 75 percent of whose software consultants have Asperger’s Syndrome or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The company’s employees test software and technological devices and there are now offshoots in Iceland and Scotland. A small nonprofit, Aspiritech, was founded in 2008 in Chicago; its employees also have Asperger’s Syndrome or an ASD and test smartphone apps.

Hahn of Square One is creating iRise, a software tool, that aims to “create simulations of the sort of problems the trainees would confront in an actual work setting”; according to Business Week, he has spoken to Warner Bros. and LegalZoom about contracts for testing software. He is also seeking to create an “ASD-friendly work environment,” as the typical workplace’s social demands and physical environment can “trigger paralyzing anxiety” in ASD individuals. Hahn describes such accommodations as having a quiet room, headphones for workers to block out noise or a counselor on-site.

“Outsourcing” Work to Autistic Individuals: A Civil Rights Issue

But what is, as Business Week says, “most original” about Square One — and most controversial — is that Hahn plans for the for-profit company to pay software testers $15 to $25 an hour, a rate lower than what software testers in India and in the U.S. receive. Hahn is in effect planning to “outsourc[e] to the developmentally disabled rather than the developing world”:

Asked whether it might be exploitative to pay people with a disability less than those without one for doing the same work, he says he doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, he says, Indian software testers aren’t exactly sweatshop labor; they make about $25 an hour. And if paying less makes the company able to hire the developmentally disabled in the first place, he doesn’t see a problem with it.

“I haven’t had one parent of an autistic child come to me and say this isn’t going to work,” he says. “They say, ‘This is a way for my child to make more money than they would have made otherwise, and allow them to be more independent.’ They worry, what is my child going to do when I’m gone? And this is kind of a way out.”

Certainly it is commendable that Hahn seeks to address the job crisis for individuals with ASDs and by creating a company that draws on their strengths and seeks to accommodate their needs. As Business Week points out, “Specialisterne only worked because of generous Danish subsidies for employing the developmentally disabled.”

Hahn justifies his proposal by saying in Business Week that “people with autism don’t have a lot of alternatives—when they do find work, it’s usually bagging groceries or sweeping hospital floors at the minimum wage.” He may not see a “problem” with hiring autistic individuals for less than what a similar job at other American companies would offer; it is the case that individuals with ASDs may be unable to get such jobs due to their disabilities.

But Square One faces a looming civil rights issue that could undermine the company’s aims. $15 to $25 is of course more than the minimum wage but, however “ASD-friendly” an environment that Square One offers, proposing to pay autistic employees at such rates — as cheaper labor — suggests that the company views such individuals’ work, and even such individuals themselves, as worth less.

Related Care2 Coverage

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A Subminimum Wage For Workers With Disabilities? TAKE ACTION!

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34 comments

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2:20PM PST on Jan 23, 2013

Life is really hard when all you can worry about is how to pay the bills, day in and day out, no relief, no answers.

12:10AM PST on Jan 7, 2013

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission might have something to say to Hahn about paying disabled people less than average people.

1:13PM PST on Jan 5, 2013

What I do remember is that from about 2006 to 2008 onward my career has stalled and my tasks have become low skill, except for my last job at CACI, which was complex.

What I am essentially doing now is fixing broken links in Microsoft FrontPage, and also doing minor HTML edits in the same, for about $31 an hour.

I don't know if my recent renewal of ASP.Net skills will improve my job description or my salary.

4:27PM PST on Jan 3, 2013

But... I do not require special accommodations.

When I was working in my first 11 year job, the director (now retired) estimated total costs (indirect, including medical) are two times salary, and is the rate that gets billed to the government per labor hour.

I do not appreciate the insinuation that people with ASD are less able than those without. I have prepared for two careers, one successful (I.T., minimal formal training 25 hours) one unsuccessful (social research, applied, includes graduate degree).

4:23PM PST on Jan 3, 2013

That may be an indirect reason why adults with ASD are less likely to marry, especially guys, who are outpriced by neurotypicals?

4:19PM PST on Jan 3, 2013

At about $31 USD an hour, I wonder if I am underpaid, not intentionally, but nevertheless underpaid as an Aspie.

7:02PM PDT on Jun 5, 2012

That is not a value judgement on aspies, it is just normal, ruthless, cost-cutting. Capitalism demands it.

9:33PM PDT on May 9, 2012

I suspect that I have Asperger's, just not severe enough that it's ever been diagnosed. I also have many years of experience with software testing, and with programming. However, I've been disabled by a stroke, so I'm now unable to return to my previous job, or start any new job that requires me to drive to work and back. I'll have to spend some time deciding if I'm interested in applying to Square One (telecommuting only).

9:28PM PDT on May 9, 2012

I agree with Karla, this isn't about injustice. All our air, food and water has been poisoned by Big Biz and very soon everybody will be born autistic. How are our billionaire leaders going to deal with this? They need low paid workers but they also need innovators. We don't need to worry about long term because there isn't going to be any long term. Five years ago autism occurred at the rate of 1 in 800. Now in polluted areas, it's occurring at 1 in 68. Soon it will be
everybody and that will be in the very near future. What will be done about that?

8:14PM PDT on May 9, 2012

1. To poster who said I was talking bullshit... Uh... No. I have more than 20 years in High Tech industry. I think I know what is fair pay for what. This IS my business too.
2. To poster who suggests he change his description... Please note that Business Week misquoted him and his company.. Bad journalism is bad...
3. To the person who thinks that when the software is sold everyone in the company will be rich except the autistic people... Uh.... That is NOT how it works at all. In fact these guys do not make software. They do contracts.
4. For the person who wants to hear about success stories... Me too, but the program is just started. It is not highly likely that the autistics this program has right now will go on to be full time employees in corporate America anytime soon. They need a lot of support and will likely be part time for a long while. It is not like this company is luring autistic people who could otherwise do the job. They are taking severely affected people and training them and supporting their work. It is very cool.

I am in communication with Kristina Chew and hooked her up with Chad for a discussion. As an autistic self-advocate and advocate, I am highly sensitive to the disability rights issues but I am also trying to prevent us from shooting ourselves in the foot on this one. We must be careful that we work WITH the people trying to help us and find out facts before going off screaming about injustices. There are no injustic

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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