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Often people with autism can find themselves marginalised, struggling to integrate into society and finding it difficult to secure employment.

Siegfried Wirtner, a Swiss IT professional with a wide network of contacts in the industry, discovered this when he was asked to assist a teenager find employment. “In 2009 a friend asked me if I could help find an apprenticeship position for her son who has Asperger's. Nobody gave the boy a chance. As a result, I organised the training for young people with autism myself,” he says.

In 2009, Wirtner launched ICT4autism to provide IT training to people with the disorder in Switzerland. The same training is now available for students here in the UAE. “There is a wide range of training opportunities and courses in the field of computer science for everyone,” he says.

“However, this offer did not exist for autistic people in 2009, nor today. We are the only company who successfully takes people of determination through the Swiss computer scientist diploma, as well as the extensive social training that is required; so that at the end of the course, not only do they have a qualification, but become a valued member of society with a job.”

Explaining why he chose to bring the programme to the UAE, Wirtner says, “Our business will appeal and impact many people in the UAE. So far it only exists in Switzerland and the results don’t lie. It’s beneficial, whether you’re one of our students going through the programme knowing upon completion you’re integrated into the working world, or whether you’re one of the many organisations taking on our students and seeing tremendous added value as a result.”

“Dubai has made some fantastic advances in working with people of determination up to the age of 16. We plan to continue this great work and take the student from initial education to employment. In addition, we will be bringing the Swiss vocational training system to the UAE. It has the highest recognition in the world in every respect.”

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Proven success, education à la Suisse

From training just four students in 2009, that figure has grown to over 100 today and ICT4autism has been able to secure IT employment for 100 per cent of graduates in recent years. It’s a remarkable success story.

One individual who benefited from this specialist approach was Elia Fry, who now works as an application developer, running complex IT projects for his company. During his teens, Elia was unable to ride on the train as he would become overwhelmed with the mental stimuli, instead relying on Red Cross transportation to get to and from his course. Prior to enrolling at ICT4autism, Fry was bullied by other kids and struggled to communicate with his peers.

Fry believes that the course’s unique combination of an individualised approach to each student alongside vocational and social skills training has significantly improved his life and he says, “I am now able to talk to anyone.”

Milo Mathis, another successful graduate of the programme, was only diagnosed with autism when he was 22. Following 120 unsuccessful applications for training, ICT4autism was the only organisation to accept him.

Wirtner says that autistic students actually perform better on average than their non-autistic counterparts on the ICT course. “All of our apprentices have successfully completed their training so far; the average grade is higher than that of ICT students in Switzerland. Every year our graduates win prizes in the categories of general education and individual practical work. In 2018, two ICT4 autism apprentices were among the top 15 of around 650 diplomas in the entire canton of Zurich. They were subsequently invited to Shanghai to develop their workplace skills.”

We will also be showcasing our organisation in the Swiss Pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai on November 14 and would be delighted to meet anyone there.

- Siegfried Wirtner, Founder, ICT4autism

Integration into the workplace

ICT4autism’s training, which lasts between three and four years, includes external internships for several months through partnerships with leading companies such as Allianz Suisse Insurance Co. and Microsoft. This allows the students to experience the workplace environment first hand and also demonstrate their skills and value to prospective employers.

Diego Cerbo, IT Program Manager, Microsoft Switzerland, says that his experience with autistic workers is that their high mental capacity means that they often perform complex tasks better than their non-autistic counterparts.

Roger Keller, Owner and Managing Director, Honestas AD, has been impressed with how students from ICT4autism are able to become absorbed in tasks and while it may take longer to convey projects to them, once they are focused he finds the results are often superior. “They are such fast learners, it gives me the shivers,” he says.

Wirtner describes the process of integrating his students into society as “polishing raw diamonds” and says that ICT4autism continues to work with and support their students for one year after their completion of the course.

He is also keen for any UAE residents who may benefit from his team’s unique approach to IT training to contact ICT4autism. “We will be holding trial days in the coming weeks and would recommend anyone interested to call us on +971 4 409 6960 or send an email. We will also be showcasing our organisation in the Swiss Pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai on November 14 and would be delighted to meet anyone there.

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