Declaring its eagerness to find workers who “think differently”, a German software giant has announced it plans to recruit hundreds of people with autism within the next few years.
SAP said it aimed to train 650 workers with autism to become IT specialists by 2020. The figure amounts to one per cent of the corporation’s multinational workforce, matching the proportion of the world’s population that has the condition.
The project has already started in India and Ireland where a total of 11 people with autism are employed by the company. The programme to take on software testers, programmers and data management workers will spread across Germany, Canada and the U.S. this year.
People with autism have a neural development disorder that often undermines their ability to communicate and interact socially, and their brains process information very differently to people who are not autistic, leading to repetitive and restricted behaviour.
But in the world of computers the tendencies they often display such as an obsession for detail and an ability to analyse long sets of data very accurately can translate into highly useful and marketable skills.
The move was welcomed by Germany’s largest organisation for people with autism, Autismus Deutschland. “This is the first major company to make such a commitment, and from that point of view alone it’s groundbreaking for sufferers of autism,” said Friedrich Nolte, of the group. “We will be watching closely to see that they follow through and also looking to see that these workers are not being exploited.”
“People with autism are used to being ignored. Even if they have managed to obtain qualifications, they will often fail getting a job because they can’t get past an interview. They do not want to tell a company that they suffer from autism because that will risk their application being turned down, but if they don’t admit to it, know they risk being considered strange and unsuitable for the workplace anyway.”
He said 5-6 per cent managed to find a workplace, with most of the rest forced to live on benefits with few prospects. But he said IT offered a huge area of opportunity for people with autism. “Meticulousness and logical thinking, just the skills the branch needs, are conspicuous features amongst them.” Mr. Nolte said he hoped the appetite to consider applications from autism sufferers would spread to other fields of industry such as logistics and contribute to a rethink about autism.
Around 20 per cent of people with the milder forms of autism such as Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism are in work, but experts estimate that with the right kind of encouragement and training the number could rise threefold.
SAP has pledged to provide job coaches who will act as mediators between the workers and their employers and colleagues, for instance to help them with the challenges of communication or the stresses of working under time pressure.
Anka Wittenberg, who is responsible for diversity and integration at SAP, said the initiative offered a chance for the company in the highly competitive labour market “to secure talented workers around the world”.
DAX-registered SAP, which is based in Walldorf, Baden-Wurttemberg, in southern Germany, created the initiative together with the Danish company Specialisterne, or The Specialists. Set up by Thorkil Sonne after he recognised the cognitive talents of his own son Lars, who suffers from autism, the social organisation aims to equip one million sufferers of autism with skills for the workplace within the next few years.
Melanie Altrock (27), who has Asperger’s, spoke of her relief at having found work after a Berlin company, Auticon, which specialises in finding IT roles for people with the condition, took her on. She said she had spent years moving from one low-paid job to another, knowing she had more to offer.
“Even my psychiatrist told me that he wouldn’t employ me. And I know you just have to look at me to know that I’m different and don’t fit into the normal workplace,” she told German radio. Now she works as a software tester where her memory skills and attention to detail are highly valuable. “Finally I feel I have something to offer,” she said. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013