A colleague and his wife, attending an Independence-Day function in Mumbai some years ago, were surprised when a 14-year-old wished the woman a happy birthday. When she asserted she wasn't born on August 15, Jason D'Souza, insisted that it was on her passport. The woman was astounded. When did he see her passport?
Then she recalled submitting a photocopy to the boy's mother two years ago —and that was the only time she had met him before this encounter.
Jason is autistic and does not go to a regular school. With such of a fantastic memory, will he still find it difficult to fend for himself later in life?
Neelanjan Dasgupta doesn’t think so. Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a ninth-grader in the US several years ago, Dasgupta did several computer courses after finishing school. But he didn't graduate. Today, he is a quality associate at SAP Labs India, Bengaluru, where he often earns praise for his exceptional eye for detail.
“We were working on an employee benefit solution for a client. While testing the product, I found that if a negative currency value was entered erroneously, it would have the effect of reducing the employee's corpus instead of augmenting it. This was an important bug no one else spotted,” Neelanjan recalls.
Saif, 31, who works in a reputed IT firm in Bengaluru, was diagnosed with autism in his early 20s. He has developed a web application that helps autistic people read and comprehend English.
“I won a prize for it in a contest judged by an IIT-Madras professor," he says. Saif hopes to improve and eventually patent the innovation, which also got noticed by Cambridge professor and director of the University's Autism Research Centre, Simon Baron-Cohen.
Long road ahead
Dasgupta and Saif didn't reach where they are today very easily. In fact, autism can take a huge psychological toll on both, the patient and the caretaker and there's a great deal of trial and error before an acceptable level of improvement in the quality of life is achieved.
Classic autistics generally suffer from social and language dysfunction, and exhibit stereotypical behaviour, such as spinning movements, finger wiggling and animal-like sounds. Many are loners who don't act their own age and struggle to socialise with other kids. Saif was one such. "I couldn't communicate easily. I went into depression, and often contemplated suicide. I'm an avid reader and used my fondness for research to help me cope with my autism," he says.
Some high-functioning autistics, such as Dasgupta, do not have speech defects, but still face problems socialising and cannot work in noisy environments. Dasgupta, in fact, is also averse to bright light and strong food tastes. “We have always kept him in a protected environment. In SAP, they have sensitised the staff. He is comfortable working there. It had been almost four years since he joined the company,” his father says.
Delhi-based Archana Lohia's son, diagnosed with autism at age two, couldn't even speak. Therapy at a centre for autistic individuals only made matters worse. “Aansh would vomit and throw tantrums every time he went there,” says Lohia. Things improved four years later when she took him to a speech therapist. He started speaking, even made friends with other children. Today, Lohia’s 21-year-old is pursuing a career in hospitality management and will soon intern at a premier hotel.
While no data is available on autism in India, “awareness about it has increased and more cases are being reported,” says Ashima Srivastava, senior consultant clinical psychologist at Max Hospital.
Hidden skills and traits
Experts say people with autism showcase a range of traits that can give them an edge at a workplace. “We have seen students with photographic memories. One child remembered every cricketing record and could recount it in a matter of seconds,” says Poonam Prakash, who heads the Special Education Needs programme at The Shri Ram School in Moulsari, Gurugram.
“They are great at performing repetitive jobs like folding clothes and library work without letting the monotony discourage them. They follow structures very well,” Prakash adds.
Students with special needs at a bakery class run by The Shri Ram School, Moulsari, Gurugram
Jason's mother Cynthia says, "Apart from a great memory, my son can tell you the day of the week if provided the date, month and year."
Honesty and integrity are traits inherent in people with autism, and while social skills are an area of concern, Merry Barua, who runs Action for Autism, an NGO, says that can be advantageous for employers. “They aren't gossip mongers, for starters.”
“Some autistic people have extraordinary mathematical reasoning skills and can solve numericals within seconds. They can also learn the beats of music really fast,” Srivastava of Max Hospital says.
Project Prayas at the Autism Society of India helps people with autism use technology at an early stage, providing free open educational resources online. “It was our work at Prayas and a story from a Danish organisation called Specialisterne that motivated SAP to employ people with autism,” says Kavita Sharma, who runs the project.
She says technological domains like software testing, coding, graphic designing, content development, data entry operations, and hardware and electric equipment assembly can be good career options.
As a part of the National Institute of Open Schooling curriculum, institutes like The Shri Ram School teach baking, chocolate-making, block printing, screen printing, candle making, graphics and data entry to people with autism.
“Skill India is an initiative which, if used correctly, can benefit,” says Surabhi Verma who started Sparsh for Children, a therapy centre in South Delhi that helps children with learning disorders.
The Skill India programme offers vocational courses in aerospace and aviation, apparels, construction, beauty and wellness, tourism and hospitality, textile and telecom, among others.
Tapping the corporate world
With organisations like EnAble India, Autism Society of India and Action for Autism knocking the doors of big corporate houses and small companies to open employment opportunities, many places have started offering jobs to people with autism.
Currently, IT companies like SAP, Accenture and Allegis, drug major Himalaya and Lemon Tree have appointed them.
In 2011, SAP Labs India piloted a programme to educate people with ASD and absorb successful candidates as software quality experts. The success of this initial programme set the ground work for the launch of the Autism at Work programme by SAP globally in 2013.
“We realised early on that there was an untapped pool of talent here. We want to harness the unique capabilities of autistic individuals to help identify innovative solutions and meet the demands of our customers,” say Kiran Venkataramanappa, development manager and lead, Autism at Work for SAP in India.
At present, there are 17 autistic employees at SAP in India and more than 110 candidates globally. By 2020, the company aims to have one per cent of its workforce from this group.
In May 2015, The Lemon Tree Hotel Company launched a training programme for four autistic individuals at Red Fox Hotel, Delhi Airport, and eventually hired one who successfully completed training. The company is now working on doing a third traineeship at Lemon Tree Hotel, Gurgaon, and has partnered with Action for Autism.
Himalaya says two of its employees who work with the digital and e-commerce team have autism. They handle data entry and mobile app functional testing. "They are highly efficient at something they enjoy doing,” says K G Umesh, director-Human Resources, Himalaya.
It is a slow, long process, but society is now beginning to open up to and productively engage people with autism.
Some names have been changed on request