In the next decade, more than 500,000 children in the United States who are diagnosed with autism will become adults. To date, there is no national plan for the housing, vocational and/or therapeutic supports that they will likely need.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition that, while manifesting different symptoms in each person who has the diagnosis, is characterized by the condition’s impact on communication and social understanding. Fifty percent of people with ASD also have an intellectual disability diagnosis and need more support in terms of both education and care.
However, among the half of people with autism who have no cognitive disability, finding competitive employment still remains challenging: 85 percent of adults with autism are unemployed and of the 15 percent with jobs, most are working part-time.
Enter SAP, a global enterprise software application company. In 2013, SAP began its “Autism at Work” program with support from Specialisterne, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing the talents of people with autism to find technology-related jobs. The company now employs 100 people with autism serving in a number of different positions in IT, programming, HR and in other departments in seven different countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Ireland and the United States, with plans to hire more in South Korea this year. The company’s goal is ambitious: by 2020, it plans to make 1 percent of the company’s workforce employees with autism.
SAP’s Autism at Work program, lead by Jose Velasco, a father of two children on the autism spectrum, partners with organizations that advocate for adults with disabilities in the workforce, including The Arc and Expandability. Velasco is clear that the program is not about charity or philanthropy; it is about finding an overlooked talent pool of people who posses qualities that SAP seeks: detail-oriented and meticulous, with a high ability to focus and concentrate, and loyal to the company. These are all qualities that are characteristic of people on the Asperger Syndrome side of the ASD spectrum.
However, these highly intelligent, highly focused and motivated employees can struggle with the social and communication aspects of being in a workplace. To support them, SAP’s Autism At Work program utilizes a team approach. Each employee not only works with a manager or direct supervisor, but also receives support from a mentor — a fellow employee who volunteers to help the Autism At Work employee learn to socialize in the work setting. The mentor meets his/her mentee for monthly lunches and encourages participation in team outings like group trips to see a ballgame.
For employees like Patricl Viesti, these supports have made employment at SAP a dream come true. While Viesti did well in high school and college, he struggled at job interviews. SAP has created alternatives to traditional interviews, which many people with autism find stressful — instead, they can participate in a training process in which managers can get to know their skills and assets, and determine how they could best match those skills to a job at SAP. Viesti has not only succeeded in his tech job, but enjoys participating in regular outings with his co-workers.
SAP, which focuses on diversity and inclusion in many different ways, including emphasizing cross-generational intelligence and awareness of gender diversity, explains its commitment to the Autism at Work program stating, “By embracing differences, we help spark innovation — while challenging assumptions and inspiring change.”