Australian Human Resources Institute
Freelance business writer: Chris Sheedy
The IT world has discovered the value that autistic people can bring to an organisation. But the lessons they are learning about diversity are important for HR professionals in any sector.
During the second world war, the Allied intelligence services utilised unique talents of colour-blind people to their benefit. Aerial photographs of enemy positions had to be analysed to identify the movement and location of troops and weapons. Whether the photos were black and white or colour, camouflage made the positions almost impossible to distinguish. But colour-blind people had spent a lifetime noticing visual differences that are not related to colour, so they spotted camouflaged positions with ease. What had previously been seen as a disability was suddenly recognised as a powerful advantage.
Michael Fieldhouse, the director of federal government and emerging business opportunities for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), recalls being told about this by his father. It is a story that stuck with him, and is one he uses to illustrate the potency of the project that has been his passion ever since he read a fascinating case study several years ago. The paper was co-authored in 2007 by Professor Rob Austin, at the time working at Harvard Business School. It profiled a Danish not-for-profit called Specialisterne (The Specialists in Danish), which placed people into software testing jobs and roles that were recognised as monotonous and repetitive, but which required great accuracy. Three out of four of Specialisterne’s employees had been diagnosed with some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
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