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Category Archives: Autism In the News

Autism in the national and local news.

How Autism Can Help You Land a Job

Working  with Autism Spectrum Disorder

DUBLIN—Some employers increasingly are viewing autism as an asset and not a deficiency in the workplace.

A Germany-based software company has been actively seeking people with autism for jobs, not because of charitable outreach but because it believes features of autism may make some individuals better at certain jobs than those without autism.

It’s a worthy initiative, according to disability experts, since 85% of adults with autism are estimated to be unemployed.

Piloted in Germany, India and Ireland, the program is also launching in four North

SAP employee Patrick Brophy, right, with his co-worker and coach David Sweeney. Ciaran Dolan for The Wall Street Journal

SAP aims to have up to 1% of its workforce—about 650 people—be employees with autism by 2020, according to Jose Velasco, head of the autism initiative at SAP in the U.S.

People with autism spectrum disorder—characterized by social deficits and repetitive behavior—tend to pay great attention to detail, which may make them well suited as software testers or debuggers, according to Mr. Velasco, who has two children with the condition.

In addition, these people bring a different perspective to the workplace, which may help with efficiency and creativity as well, he said.

“They have a very structured nature” and like nonambiguous, precise outcomes, Mr. Velasco said. “We’re looking at those strengths and looking at where those traits would be of value to the organization.”

Autistic employees at SAP take on roles such as identifying software problems, and assigning customer-service queries to members of the team for troubleshooting.

One employee works in “talent marketing,” issuing communications to employees internally. The company is looking for someone to produce videos and is considering an applicant with autism who has experience in media arts.

SAP is also considering other positions, such as writing manuals to give clients very precise instructions on how to install software.

Individuals with autism might excel at going step by step, without skipping details that others may miss, said Mr. Velasco. The business procurement process, such as getting invoices or managing the supply chain, is another area in which an individual with autism might shine, he said.

SAP isn’t the only company to have such a program. In the U.S., mortgage lenderFreddie Mac FMCC -1.12% has offered career-track internships since 2012, including in IT, finance and research.

The lender hired its first full-time employee from the program in January, according to a Freddie Mac spokeswoman. In IT, the company has found that interns often perform well in testing and data-modeling jobs that require great attention to detail and focus as well as a way of seeing things that might not have been anticipated by the developers.

“Harnessing the unique skills of people on the autism spectrum has the potential to strengthen our business and make us more competitive,” according to the lender’s policy.

To be sure, as with any group, people with autism have a range of interests and abilities. SAP is working with a Danish autism-focused training and consultancy firm, Specialisterne, which carefully screens and interviews the candidates to find the appropriate matches before sending them to SAP to evaluate.

Patrick Brophy, 29 years old, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science in software systems and a master’s in multimedia systems, which includes website development and editing. Mr. Brophy says he has Asperger’s, a term commonly used to describe a milder form of autism spectrum disorder.

He had been looking for full-tine work for a few years but said that in the handful of interviews he went to, he would sometimes stutter or misinterpret questions, which he felt reflected poorly on him in the interviews.

When he arrived at SAP for the screening day, however, he had the technical qualifications and he appeared to have skills to work in a corporate setting, according to Peter Brabazon, Specialisterne program manager. Mr. Brophy was hired by the quality assurance department in July, where he identifies glitches in software prior to it being issued to clients.

“Four weeks before joining, I was steadily more and more nervous,” said Mr. Brophy, who worried about his adjustment to a new environment. “Within a month, [the work] was second nature. I had found myself.”

Mr. Brophy said there have been challenges with his job, particularly when he has to revamp how he does a certain task.

From a social standpoint, he found it easy to integrate into his team, said both Mr. Brophy and David Sweeney, a colleague assigned to be his mentor.

About 1% of the population in the U.S.—or some three million people—is thought to have an autism-spectrum disorder. The latest figures issued Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one in 68 children have been identified with an autism-spectrum disorder.

Their lifetime employment rate is extremely low even though many want to work, said disability experts. Among young adults between 21 and 25 years old, only half have ever held a paid job outside the home, according to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Though many people with autism go on to higher education and are qualified for employment, they may have trouble getting in the door of a workplace because of difficulties with networking or interviews, according to Wendy Harbour, executive director of the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education, at Syracuse University.

There are a number of companies and outreach efforts that aim to hire people with autism, seeking to tailor work to their abilities.

But SAP and employers like Freddie Mac said their effort is specifically a business decision to take advantage of what they see as unique skill sets.

SAP said that individuals being considered to work there usually have had at least some higher education.

In Dublin, the candidates arrive at the company’s software design center, dubbed the “AppHaus,” which features open spaces, movable desks and whimsical furniture. They are asked to work in pairs on a task building a motorized robot. Candidates are given the instruction manual and brief instructions.

Assessors from Specialisterne look to see if the candidates listen to instructions and pick up on cues, and how they react to challenges such as how the colors of the pieces to the robot look different from the instruction manual. “I want to see how they work together and their technical skills,” said Debbie Merrigan, one of the assessors for Specialisterne.

She wants them to be meticulous, she says. If they aren’t it doesn’t mean they aren’t employable, but they may not be a good fit for working at SAP. Sometimes candidates get overwhelmed and simply leave.

After Specialisterne identifies a candidate as being a good fit, SAP then conducts further interviews, as they would with any other applicant, says Kristen Doran, a program manager in human resources at SAP Dublin. At this facility, 15 candidates were screened and interviewed in order to hire the three who are currently placed as contractors. Mr. Brophy works in the quality assurance department while the other two individuals are in the troubleshooting division.

The candidates are paid market rate and if they succeed on the job, they will be hired as full-time employees after a year, said Liam Ryan, managing director of SAP Labs Ireland.

Difficulties with social interaction and inflexibility can sometimes pose significant problems for individuals with autism, and SAP has a mentoring system and in some cases has made changes to the work schedule to accommodate these new employees. The company also conducts a month of employee-adaptation training to increase employees’ comfort level at working with the team as well as another month or more of job training.

“It’s hard to go into a corporate space if you prefer order to disorder,” says Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne. “Our biggest effort is to work with them…to define and strengthen their comfort zone,” said Mr. Sonne, who has a son with autism.

Impact of Dropping Asperger’s from the DSM-V

Asperger’s syndrome no longer listed in DSM-V

A big change is about to take place in the soon to be released Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more commonly known as the DSM-V. Asperger’s syndrome has dropped from the manual and instead it will fall under the category of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The name for Asperger’s Syndrome has officially changed, but many still use the term Asperger’s Syndrome when talking about their condition.

The American Psychiatric Association released a statement stating that, “The new criteria

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Center-Based ABA Therapy

In June of 2012 there was a major federal policy change that took place that provided more families living with autism access to Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy. Now, nearly all states require health insurance plans to cover ABA therapy.

Many people will agree that ABA therapy is something that can be done in a variety of environments, including a school environment, home environment and center-based environment. However, studies show that ABA is most effective when done 1 on 1 in an intensive, center-based environment.

Because ABA therapy is highly individualized and each program is uniquely designed for a child, it becomes difficult to implement these programs in a school environment. Schools often are dealing with budget and staffing constraints which makes it challenging to implement ABA therapy in a school setting.

A center-based program also allows children to interact with other children and therapists, work on not only social and communication skills, but also daily living skills, and it provides the opportunity to work on further “real world” situations outside of the classroom.

So what are some factors you should consider when looking for an ABA center?

  • Safe and welcoming environment
  • Educated staff (credentials and experience as well as passion matter)
  • Child-to-therapist ratio
  • BCBA caseload size
  • Open communication
  • Parental involvement

Always request a tour and ask about the process for enrollment. See if they offer assistance to the family such as support groups and education.

If you would like to learn more about center-based ABA therapy, please contact Lighthouse Autism Center’s Family Outreach Coordinator at 574-387-4313.

Open Enrollment – What You Need to Know

Health insurance has changed dramatically in the last year, with many companies, like Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and IU Health, leaving the individual market in Indiana. This means there are fewer choices for 2018 making it important to begin shopping early.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s open enrollment period allows individuals to enroll in a plan through the Health Insurance Marketplace. Any family who has a child with autism and wants access to therapy should have a healthy insurance plan covering ABA services. So, for those that do not currently have health insurance, or have group coverage not covering ABA Therapy, now’s the time to enroll.

To obtain insurance coverage in 2018, you mus purchase a policy between November 1 and December 15, 2017. While you may purchase a policy anytime during this period, the earliest the plan will be effective is January 1, 2018. The good news is ACA plans are fully funded and are mandated to include coverage of autism services. Plus, it doesn’t affect the cost of the plan in any way. The Insurance Department at Lighthouse Autism Center has been working diligently with an insurance broker to identify plans that will most benefit families with autism.

To learn more or inquire about purchasing a policy, you can contact Lighthouse Insurance Manager, Michele Rohyans, at 574-387-4313, or micheler@lighthouseautismcenter.com.

When asked how Lighthouse can help families, Sandy Maggioli said, “We will help families find a policy that is right for them and even help them apply for grants to cover their out-of-pocket expenses. It is our goal to help families in any way we can, starting with the insurance process.”

Can Google find the cure for autism?

Over the past 10 years, no disorder has become so familiar to Americans, yet remained so mysterious, as autism.

Now affecting 1 in every 68 children born in the United States—up from 1 in 166 a decade ago—the condition has so far resisted nearly all efforts to cure it, curb it or even precisely define it. As a result, speculation and controversy surrounding the disease has mounted, leaving parents unsure what to believe and doctors frustrated with a lack of options.

But an unusual partnership between science, business and philanthropy may soon provide some answers. Autism Speaks, Google and geneticist Dr. Stephen Scherer have devised an ambitious plan to upload the complete genomes of 10,000 autistic patients and their families to a cloud database that will be searchable, sortable and shareable with researchers around the world. The plan, known as the Autism Speaks Ten Thousands Genome Program—or AUT10K—aims to harness the combined power of big data, crowdsourcing and genetic know-how to isolate the causes of autism and find new genetic targets for treatment.

If successful, the $50 million project could not only help doctors understand and treat autism but change the way illnesses are tackled in the 21st century.

Despite the best efforts of world-class scientists, the research on autism so far has only hinted at its roots and possible cures, said Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks. “We have raised money for the National Institutes of Health for the better part of 10 years, and they have already spent about $2 billion of it, and we still don’t have any breakdown of autism,” he said, referring to NIH. “They’re sort of nibbling outside the palace, and they can’t get in.”

“I think that this will open up a whole world of autism research,” he said. “Hopefully, we’re going to save 25 years of research in a matter of 18 to 24 months.”

Already the project is paying dividends. Later this year, Dr. Scherer will be publishing a paper based on an analysis of the first few thousand genomes to be uploaded that shows, as expected, that autism consists of more than a single condition.

Unlocking the mysteries of autism

“We have new, unpublished data that shows autism is really a collection of different disorders,” said Dr. Scherer, director of the Centre for Applied Genomics at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “This is so much the case that even in families where siblings have autism, they often have different forms of the condition and therefore need to be treated in a manner specific to their sub-type.”

This is big news for people struggling with autism, which has the unfortunate distinction of being a spectrum disorder—meaning it is characterized by a range of symptoms that may or may not stem from a singular cause.

“A spectrum disorder is the kiss of death for pharmaceutical companies,” Wright said. “They’ll say to me, ‘That’s too much work; we’re not going to tackle that.'” While this first paper may not be enough to guide the production of new treatments, it is, by any estimation, a major step forward.

Scientists have long believed that studying genes is the key to understanding disorders like autism, Down’s Syndrome and Alzheimer’s. By seeing which gene mutations are shared by people with a certain condition, researchers can isolate the causes of the disease and design drugs to treat it.

But that is easier said than done. The complete human genome contains close to 25,000 genes and takes up about 100 gigabytes of storage—the equivalent of 10 high-definition movies—when uploaded to a computer. Storing, much less analyzing and sharing, all that information is far beyond the capacity of most universities and research institutions.

Enter Google and its seemingly limitless computing capacity. About a year and a half ago, David Glazer, a Google engineering director in search for a new challenge, formed a team within the company to find life-science projects that could benefit from using its cloud platform, which was designed to store and analyze massive data sets. Autism Speaks, which had already been collecting genomes from patients and their families for 15 years, seemed the perfect fit.

“Part of Google’s business is to make our cloud platform useful and available to anyone who has hard, scalable information and data problems to solve,” Glazer said. But “until fairly recently, a biologist didn’t need a tool more powerful than Excel to work with all the data that they were able to gather. That’s changed, particularly with the advent of genomics and genomic sequencing. “This is a tremendous opportunity to really put our platform to use,” he added, “and, of course, being a great customer for our platform.”

That the lead researcher for Google’s first life-science client should be Dr. Scherer makes some historical sense. His signature work greatly contributed to the massive increase in data now produced by many geneticists.

In 2004, Dr. Scherer discovered a major form of genetic variation that researchers had previously overlooked. For decades, scientists had believed that all people were born with two pairs of every gene—one from their father and one from their mother. But using a new form of high-resolution scanning technology that allowed him to examine DNA more closely than ever before, Scherer and his colleagues found that people can have three copies of a gene, or one, or even none at all. Sometimes these copy number variants, as they are known, make no difference to a person’s development. Other times they lead to serious developmental conditions, such as autism.

“Some genes are fine in only one copy, and some are fine in zero copies, believe it or not,” he said. “But there are a set of genes that if you only have one copy, or three copies, anything away from the typical two, it causes developmental problems. And that’s what we’ve seen in autism.”

Large-scale genome sequencing

Dr. Scherer’s research—for which he was named a possible recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine—”opened up a new area of inquiry” in autism research, said Dr. Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, a pediatrician and autism researcher at University of Alberta. “It’s really because of that work that’s laid the groundwork for the advances that comprise the autism 10K project,” which he said had “tremendous potential to accelerate progress.”

An Ontario native, father of two and avid hockey fan, Scherer talks about AUT10K as a dream come true for a scientist used to working—and sometimes straining—within the bounds of conventional research.

“As a grad student 20 years ago, I used to dream about this technology,” he said. “We did this poor man’s science for so long, looking at little snippets, snapshots of the genome trying to figure out what it meant. We’re doing now what I call the perfect genetic experiment.”

Autism Speaks is not the only group pursuing a cure for a disease through large-scale genome sequencing. Earlier this year, the NIH awarded a $12.6 million grant to five American universities, including the Boston University School of Medicine, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, to analyze whole genome sequences of Alzheimer’s patients. In 2011, the Mayo Clinic announced an effort to sequence the genomes of thousands of its patients; it later selected Complete Genomic to do the actual sequencing.

But they do think they can be the first to show large-scale results. “We’re working fast, nimble,” Scherer said. “We’re following the Google model, so I think we’ll be first.”

Scherer and Autism Speaks hope to have all the genomes uploaded to Google’s cloud database by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, Google is at work on interfaces that will allow both researchers and families to search and analyze the data.

If all goes to plan, said Wright, who co-founded Autism Speaks after his grandson was diagnosed with autism, the treatment outlook for autistic patients will look very different two years from today.

“We’re going to have a lot of interest on the part of pharmaceutical companies and treatment organizations” once they have genetic targets and a breakdown of the disease, he said. “So to me this is heaven. This is heaven.”

—By Douglas Quenqua, special to CNBC.com

 

To see the original article on cnbc.com click here.