What Vodafone sees in autistic people in Germany

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Berlin

media captionFabian Hoff says he has had to learn to interpret body language

Fabian Hoff has a job. And that is a big deal.

He goes to work each morning in the "campus" of one of the world's biggest companies - just another man in the crowd who stream into Vodafone's shiny complex of buildings overlooking the Rhine in Duesseldorf.

But behind his bright and engaging face, there are issues which he and his employer have combined to overcome.

Mr Hoff, you see, is autistic. He is highly intelligent and adept at dealing with patterns of numbers, and this is a skill which Vodafone finds useful - but his autism means that he does not relate to people easily.

For many, autism was defined by Rain Man, the 1988 movie starring Dustin Hoffmann and Tom Cruise.

In the film, Hoffmann's character had "savant syndrome". He was socially dysfunctional, avoiding contact with people - but he had the ability to memorise strings of numbers (on cards at a gambling table in Las Vegas, for example).

But Rain Man is not autism as it is usually lived. It was a Hollywood portrayal of an extremely rare condition affecting a very few people on the planet.

Autism as it is actually lived is much more prevalent and often much less extreme. On the most authoritative estimates, about 1-2% of the population are somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Daily confusion

Mr Hoff explained to the BBC how he gets overwhelmed by groups of people. He finds it difficult to focus on what one person is saying to him, and to blank out the rest of the chatter in the office.

image captionAutistic people sometimes have a rare gift for recognising number patterns

"I get a lot of input all through the day and at the end of the day I'm really full," he says - and this adds up to a lot of stress.

He also cannot read body language easily. He cites research showing that only 20-30% of a person's meaning comes from the words uttered, but the rest comes from body language and other signals.

"But I only listen to the words. I had to learn to catch those other signals and understand them and that sometimes works better and sometimes worse".

This can lead to misunderstandings, and be fatal in job interviews.

"For instance, a boss would think I'm lazy or rebellious because I didn't react the way he expected me to react."

Vodafone has addressed the difficulties in order to reap the benefits of employing people who have high skills with numbers and patterns (useful to a company like Vodafone which deals in computer code).

Its managers are trained in how to work with autistic people as part of their team.

One piece of advice is to be direct and clear in communication. Beating about the bush just confuses.

If someone is late for a meeting, a boss should not say: "Didn't you look at your watch?"

An autistic person might just reply "I did look at my watch" and think no more about it. This miscommunication then generates anger.

Workplace adaptation

Marc Ruckebier, a manager at Vodafone, told the BBC that one of the main benefits to the company of taking on autistic people was that it made managers realise they had to treat people differently to get the best out of them.

"The key is that managers understand that they may be wasting a lot of potential. This example of the autistic people was striking because you can explain it easily to managers, and they will understand the benefit of learning to work with a diverse workforce," he says.

At Vodafone, Fabian Hoff has an outside mentor or adviser to whom he can turn if the pressure builds up, or if he just wants a chat. That is Claudia Gawrisch, from a company called Auticon, which helps autistic people get jobs.

image captionDirk Mueller-Remus wants firms to use the talents of autistic people

Auticon has helped Vodafone train its managers to read the signals. As Claudia Gawrisch explains: "Some of them are perfectionists and because of this perfectionism, sometimes some of them are slower than other working people. But when you know that, you can adapt to it. That's team work."

Auticon was founded by Dirk Mueller-Remus, who realised his son had autism. To help his son, he decided to redirect his life.

"It was really clear to me that my son had serious difficulties finding a job because of these problems in social interaction and communication," he says.

"But, on the one hand, he has extreme talents and abilities so the idea came up, together with my wife, to found a company which focuses on the strengths of these guys. One of their strengths is that they have an eye for detail".

'A real job'

Auticon often works with people who have Asperger's syndrome, which the company calls a "lighter form of autism". It affects perhaps one in every 200 people, who have normal-to-high intelligence but serious difficulties in relating to others.

But they can have strengths which Auticon tries to make the most of: strengths like a great power of observation; concentration on tasks; photographic memories; lateral thinking; loyalty; and truthfulness.

These are strengths to be tapped by companies in competitive markets, to the benefit of employer and employee.

Fabian Hoff is proud of what he contributes: "I didn't have a real job before and now I do. I was on the borderline of society, almost being out of it.

"Earning your own money is very important to become a person who's in charge of themselves".

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