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Big companies say it’s good business to hire people with autism

The world’s third-largest software firm says people with autism will make up 1 percent of its workforce by 2020

Pictured left, Patrick Viesti, 28, has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. Here, Viesti makes a presentation to a roomful of managers at SAP’s Newtown Square, Pa., office.

Patrick Viesti, 28, has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. It is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction along with repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. And yet on a Tuesday afternoon in March at SAP’s office in Newtown Square, Pa., he is making a presentation to a roomful of managers.

He’s part of a pilot program at SAP, the world’s third-largest software company, called Autism at Work. SAP has hired 30 employees with autism around the world — in Ireland, Germany, India, Canada and the U.S. — and plans to hire more than 600 others with autism by 2020, totaling 1 percent of its global workforce. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 68 American children meet the criteria for autism spectrum disorder.

People affected by autism bring a tremendous amount of capabilities that are very important for us as an IT company.

Jose Velasco

program manager, Autism at Work

“People affected by autism bring a tremendous amount of capabilities that are very important for us as an IT company,” said Jose Velasco, vice president of product management and head of the Autism at Work program. He has two children on the autism spectrum and says SAP sees great competitive value in hiring people with autism. 

“We are looking for people who have the ability to concentrate on tasks for a long time, people who have the ability to, in some places, do tasks that for other people might be considered repetitive but are absolutely of very high importance for us and the company,” he said.

For employment candidates like Viesti, who graduated cum laude with a degree in communications from West Chester University in Pennsylvania in 2011, this is a prime opportunity to begin a career. He says he has had difficulty finding a job because of his disability. “Interviews are tough enough, but it’s worse when you don’t know the person or come off as too monotone or too stiff or not as relaxed as they’d like,” he said. 

Until now, he was among the some 85 percent of autistic adults who are unemployed or underemployed. Viesti says he just wants a fair shake. “A label of Asperger’s, autism or whatever label you’re given doesn’t define who you are,” he says. “You define who you are.”

However, people with autism face real challenges in a traditional work setting. They can be extra-sensitive to noise, bright lighting and the normal stresses that come with a full-time career. Taking these things into account requires more attention and training for autistic employees and their managers. 

“In the short term, there will be additional time and money getting it up and running,” said Jim Sesil, a human capital management expert and author of “The Definitive Guide to HR Management Tools.”

Aside from additional training and onboarding costs, some companies are concerned about higher health care costs, workers’ compensation and liability issues that could spring from hiring autistic employees.

But Valesco says SAP is investing in the up-front costs to train people with autism because the company believes it will pay off in the long run.

“By 2020 we will have an onboarding equivalency of a neurotypical person to a person affected by autism where it makes no difference in onboarding one way or the other in a company,” he said. SAP will use a tight network of people to help autistic employees succeed at work, including managers who are specially trained, mentors at work and help from outside groups and NGOs.

In spite of these potential setbacks, more companies have begun investing in and hiring autistic employees. Walgreens has a distribution center in South Carolina where 40 percent of its employees have a disability — many with autism. The company recently unveiled an autism training center in Illinois as well. Freddie Mac offers career-track internships for people on the spectrum.

“There are many vacant jobs and more incentives for employers to include people with disabilities into their workforce,” said Thorkil Sonne, who runs an international consulting firm called Specialisterne, which helps companies hire people with autism. He’s working with the state of Delaware, SAP and other tech companies in the U.S. And he says more companies are on the way; Specialisterne is in talks with big pharmaceutical companies, health companies and national banks. “Our goal is to enable 1 million jobs through partnerships and knowledge.” 

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell says he wants big business in his state to embrace hiring people with autism and other disabilities. “In the end, while states have to be model employers, the only way you can possibly take this to scale is to take it to the private sector, which is so exciting for us to see so many companies in the private sector make this happen,” he said.

But the questions remain. Will it work, and will the money spent on the front end really pay off? So far, there are no studies to prove it’s a good business decision, but SAP has asked economists and human resources experts to conduct independent studies on its growth and progress with Autism at Work in order to quantify the program’s results. SAP hopes to work out the kinks, prove the program works and share its model with other companies around the world.

Sesil says he’s watching SAP’s experiment with great interest. “In the long term, there are many reasons to think it will be a gold mine,” he said. “It’s a group that hasn’t been tapped into before. But the largest challenge [is that] most firms are under pressure to keep costs down in a short term. If you’re going to reap the gains with these strategic gains related to human capital, those gains aren’t necessarily seen in the second quarter or third quarter but over time.”

As for Viesti, he’s on track to work at SAP, perhaps as a software tester. But he has his sights set on a different kind of career there. “For now, it’s mostly program development and software testing, which will be wonderful in the beginning,” he said. “But I hope to expand and use my background in communications to go into marketing … or even some consulting with various clients.”

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