For people who have Asperger syndrome, a kind of autism spectrum disorder, there’s often a disconnect between one’s intelligence and the ability to apply that intelligence to real-world situations. While people who have received an Asperger diagnosis generally have strong visual, spatial and pattern recognition skills, excellent logical reasoning and above-average IQs, they struggle with understanding social cues, sarcasm and non-verbal communication. (Asperger is no longer an official diagnosis according to the latest version of the DSM, but it is still widely used by the autism community.)
The lack of social understanding can make fitting into the workplace — from contributing to a team to communicating with a supervisor to just hanging out at the water cooler — nearly impossible. Many people with Asperger Syndrome also struggle with severe anxiety, which can impact the job-searching and interviewing process, in addition to holding down a job.
ULTRA Testing began in 2012 as a pilot project of Shectman’s company Elephant Ventures (a full service digital agency that focuses on web, social, mobile and back-end software development) and spun off as its own entity in 2013. The company’s work is to test how software works on different devices, operating systems and browsers — repetitive, detail-oriented work that they imagined could utilize the skills of people who have Asperger Syndrome.
Their theory has proved to be true — both in terms of workers’ abilities and the bottom line. “Today, 80 percent of our team members have Asperger Syndrome or similar autism spectrum profiles,” Anandan said. Of the company’s 25 employees, 20 are on the autism spectrum.
“It really helps me to bring out the talent that I feel like I’ve had, but I haven’t really had the opportunity to explore as fully as I am now,” said Mark Leslie, one of ULTRA’s employees who has Asperger Syndrome. Leslie had previously worked in a Barnes & Noble store before applying to ULTRA. “It’s a constant learning experience and it’s constantly challenging, which I really enjoy.”
Anandan and Shectman have set up their company with accommodations for the social anxiety component of Asperger Syndrome that many of their employees face. They do job interviews over Skype — allowing some distance from the pressure of in-person interviews — and permit testers to work from home.
When a position becomes available, Anandan posts it on several websites and message boards created by people who have autism. After posting a job, he may receive 150 applications in less than 72 hours. This flood of applicants points to the sheer numbers of people with this kind of autism who are looking for work.
In addition to plans for expanding their own company, Anandan and Shectman hope that ULTRA Testing will inspire other startup companies to consider the untapped potential of employees with Asperger syndrome. “We set out to create a workplace where every team member could do their best work, nurture a culture of collaboration over accommodation and build a company that could provide a high quality, highly responsive software testing service,” Anandan said. Three years in, with clients like IBM and Droga5, it’s clear Anandan has achieved his goal.