Software Provider Finds Untapped Talent in Individuals on the Autism Spectrum

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By Genevieve Douglas

Nov. 13 — Individuals on the autism spectrum represent a substantial population of untapped talent, and employers of all shapes and sizes should leverage the competitive advantage these skilled workers can bring to an organization, according to global software provider SAP, which has a program aimed at hiring workers with autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 percent of the world's population is affected by autism.

“Our main interest is to understand and learn what it takes to employ individuals on the spectrum successfully,” SAP's Jose Velasco said. “Overall, the results have been very, very positive.”

“There are an enormous amount of skills out there that are unfortunately not being tapped into,” Jose Velasco, head of the North American branch of SAP's Autism at Work program, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 12. Moreover, he said, there seems to be some symmetry in the demand for people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills and the potential of individuals on the autism spectrum to fill positions in those fields.

In May 2013, SAP launched its Autism at Work program to find employees on the spectrum to work as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists. Today, the program has resulted in nearly 50 individuals being hired in India, Ireland, Germany, Canada and the U.S., and there are plans to expand the hiring program to Brazil in 2015.

“Our main interest is to understand and learn what it takes to employ individuals on the spectrum successfully,” Velasco said. “Overall, the results have been very, very positive.”

By 2020, SAP hopes that employees with autism constitute 1 percent of its workforce worldwide.

“These individuals have fantastic degrees and educations, and they are doing menial work and are underemployed due to their autism,” Velasco said. “If they are just accommodated slightly differently in the workplace, these employees have much greater potential.”

Various Sought-After Skills

SAP's goal is to leverage some of the special skills often associated with people on the autism spectrum, such as the ability to:

• concentrate on specific jobs for long periods of time with little distraction;

• organize projects; and

• recognize patterns and find errors in software programming and documentation that other employees may not see.

Velasco said SAP also has found employees on the autism spectrum have excelled in creative positions, and they are expanding their skill sets into surprising areas of business that the company had not even anticipated.

Not Your Traditional Job Interview

SAP has found innovative ways to make the onboarding processes—one of the major barriers facing individuals on the autism spectrum—as accommodating and stress-free as possible.

People on the autism spectrum do not typically interview very well, Velasco said. This can be due to anxiety, a lack of ability to pick up on social cues or an inability to make direct eye contact, he said.

SAP starts its employee search with a call to the state office of rehabilitation services. These offices have contact with the families of autistic individuals who are interested in employment. The agencies can recommend which individuals might best fit the position SAP is looking to fill.

The interview itself is a full-day event, Velasco said. Rather than having the typical interview process, SAP hosts the job candidates for a “Lego hangout day.” Interviewees are given a box of Legos with the components necessary to build and program a robot, a list of instructions on how to build the robot and options for the workers to use their own creativity.

SAP observes the candidates' ability to follow instructions, solve problems and complete their tasks. According to Velasco, these methodologies for assessing a candidate's potential come from SAP's partner, Specialisterne, a Danish company that helps people with autism secure employment.

The goal of the interview day is to create a relaxed environment that helps to make sure the job applicant is comfortable, Velasco said. By easing potential causes of anxiety, he said, the company can see the full potential of the person.

‘Soft Transitions' at Hiring Stage

Job candidates who are selected for a position at SAP are enrolled in a four-week training program. The program prepares the employees for everything from wearing a corporate badge to dining in the cafeteria, Velasco said.

The new hires also are given training on how to work in a team and the specific skills needed for the job. In the last week of the training program, SAP human resources professionals discuss with the new employees the values, culture and details of the environment in which they will be working.

Rather than an abrupt beginning at the company, this is a gradual process that allows the employees to have “soft transitions,” which is ideal for individuals who have a hard time with change, Velasco said.

Once the employee is hired, he or she is given a “support circle” with the team manager and co-workers who have received separate training on working with people on the autism spectrum. The new employee is also given a “team buddy” who works with the individual on a day-to-day basis, and an HR partner.

To complete the support circle, new employees also are put in touch with an “Autism at Work mentor”—a volunteer from the company who helps create and expand the social network of the new employee, Velasco said. Over the course of the program, SAP has found that these mentors are the go-to people when their new colleagues have questions about the organization, need advice on their career or just want someone to have lunch with, he said.

In addition to the company support circle, the state office of rehabilitation services gives the individual a “job coach” who is on-site for the first 90 days of employment to guarantee a bridge between the management team and the individual, and “to make sure everybody gets started on the right foot,” Velasco said.

“By partnering with them we are creating a really good platform for employees to be successful,” he said.

“I think that any company can start a program like this, and it is not exclusive to global companies like SAP,” Velasco said. “These services can be established with the same level of ease at a small company or a large organization.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com