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Employment Today Magazine

Doing things differently

Career prospects are often bleak for people with autism spectrum disorders despite many having a lot to offer employers. Jackie Brown-Haysom checks out a new programme which aims to recruit and support workers with ASD.

People with autism spectrum disorders can have a lot to offer employers. They have an extraordinary eye for detail, can bring new perspectives to familiar situations, and, in the right environment, are likely to work hard and be extremely loyal.

Unfortunately the condition is also associated with characteristics that are less easy to accommodate in a workplace—unease in social situations, communication challenges, a need for predictable routines, and negative responses to sensory stimulation, such as loud noise, bright light, or even bright colours.

However, international software company SAP has developed an innovative programme to recruit and support workers with ASD, and after being successfully implemented in countries as diverse as India, China, the US, Brazil, and Germany, it has now been rolled out in New Zealand.

At the Auckland launch of Autism at Work, in May, chief diversity and inclusion officer for the Berlin-based company, Anka Wittenberg, told how the scheme originated in India as the result of a small-scale project in which a local employee network sponsored iPads for nonverbal children with autism.

From this modest beginning, the company—and Wittenberg herself—engaged with autism support services, learning more about the condition, and the generally bleak career prospects of those affected by it.

“Eighty-five percent of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders are unemployed, even though 60 percent have average to above average cognitive ability,” she said.

With some 900,000 unfilled positions in the European IT industry—“for things like software testing, compliance, and quality assurance, where you need to focus on repetitive tasks”—she began looking for ways to match up these two areas of need.

Five years on, New Zealand is the 11th country to adopt SAP’s Autism at Work programme. Under its auspices more than 120 people have so far been recruited, taking on a variety of roles in 22 different locations. The aim is that by 2020 it will have employment for 650 ASD-affected people, 30 of whom will be from New Zealand.

Why is a successful software company so keen to bring people with autism spectrum disorders into its 93,000-strong workforce?

As Wittenberg, tells it, it’s both a neat piece of symbiosis, in which people who might not otherwise get meaningful work take on roles that would otherwise be very difficult to fill, and a way to help future-proof the business during a period of rapid change.

Hosting a meeting for stakeholders at a waterfront hotel in Auckland, she explained that, with the business world currently facing “exponential change”, workplace diversity and inclusiveness are, in her view, not just nice-to-haves but essentials.

“According to Bersin by Deloitte, companies that are truly inclusive are six times more likely to cope with change, and to be innovative,” she said. “We need this kind of culture because it is the only way we can keep the business relevant.”

Although Wittenberg is unashamedly passionate about the Autism at Work programme, she doesn’t pretend it’s all been plain sailing.

“This is a success story, but not an easy one. It looks wonderful on paper, but we’ve gotten many bloody noses on the way,” she said.

“However it’s been going since 2013, and the board is still committed to it, so that is big!”

To make the programme successful the company as a whole has had to learn to do a number of things differently, starting with fundamental aspects of recruitment and induction.

“The mainstream recruitment process looks for people who have good communication skills, and who are team players, but this simply doesn’t work for those with autism. We’ve had to learn a different way.”

The company has also found itself needing to work closely with a number of its competitors, hosting annual summits with the likes of Hewlett Packard, Google, and Microsoft, to learn from each other how best to engage and support ASD workers.

One of the biggest positives to come out of the programme, however, has been a more inclusive communication style.

“A person with autism usually doesn’t understand sarcasm, or what’s said “between the lines”, so this has changed the way our teams communicate.

“We are not using sarcasm any more, and guess what? It also helps when we have people from different cultural backgrounds working together [because there is less room for is interpretation].”

Perhaps the biggest difficulty facing the initiative has been how to facilitate workplace change without distressing autistic employees.

“Companies reorganise to cope with change, and we are going through a period of exponential change, so this is still a big challenge.

“As I said, we sometimes get bloody noses, but we are getting there, step by step.”

One of the critical success factors—not just during hard times, but also for everyday work—is to have a strong support circle around every ASD worker. Wittenberg said other employees have been very willing to participate in this—“When we came out with the programme I had over 3000 employees write to me to say they wanted to help support it”—and this means every autistic worker has buddies who help them feel part of the team, whether that means helping them deal with difficulties, or simply sharing meal breaks.

New Zealand autism researcher Dr Hilary Stace, herself the parent of an adult autistic son, told the gathering that support of this nature is one of the keys to success in the workplace.

“Autistic people often find social cues confusing, so they do best when they get help with executive functioning (personal organisation), and with social translation—understanding the nuances of what they describe as the neurotypical world.”

Not all of the misunderstandings Wittenberg has dealt with have stemmed from SAP’s autistic workers, however.

“In Germany we had one [ASD] employee who wanted to work longer and longer hours, but it is our responsibility as an employer to ensure he does not work more than eight hours, so we put a timer on his table.

“Immediately I had our works councillor [union rep] asking what we were doing. The works council wanted me to stop it because they thought we were monitoring the person instead of trying to find a solution. It went all the way to the board!”

This, she said, is why there needs to be a good education programme, to ensure everyone with any sort of involvement in the employment process understands what is going on, and why.

Though the programme has been demanding at times, she said it has also been richly rewarding, at both organisational and individual levels.

People have been successfully placed into a variety of jobs, offering many of them their first opportunity to develop a career, rather than drifting between short-term, low-skill work placements.

“A lot of them are in IT roles, but we have one person working in communications, putting videos together, and they’re actually the greatest videos!”

At a recent meeting in Vancouver, Wittenberg was approached by a manager, eager to tell her about one of the programme’s recruits who had successfully filled a position in compliance that had been vacant for eight months.

‘Let me tell you, everybody is super happy,’ he said. ‘He reads a document, and if on page 5 it says 1.25, and on page 85 it says 1.52, he spots it!’

Asked for an individual success story, she told of Patrick, who joined SAP four years ago as one of the first autistic people brought in under the programme.

“When he started with us he’d been working for someone like Amazon, in a job that was absolutely not up to what he could do., and he was living at home.

“Two years ago he was with me at the United Nations talking about the programme and what it’s done for him, because now he’s a project manager, living by himself, and has been able to fly to Silicon Valley to drive a project.”

Differently wired

Autism spectrum disorder is a complex neurological disorder which affects communication and behaviour.

Although New Zealand does not collect data on the prevalence of the condition, international statistics put the incidence at about 1 in every 59 people, with males between four and five times more likely to be affected than females.

The condition was not identified until the 1940s, and was first believed to be rare. Since then the number of diagnoses has risen steadily, but this is believed to be the result of evolving understanding rather than an increase in prevalence.

Until the 1970s, those with the condition were usually institutionalised. Now most attend mainstream schools and often achieve academic success, but, according to the Ministry of Social Development they are still one of the hardest groups to place in employment.

According to Dr Rosamund Hill, a researcher with Autism Research Network NZ, ASD is both a hardware and a software problem.

“Not only does the brain look different, but it is also wired differently, which means some things are not wired terribly well, and others are wired better.”

Autism has a strong genetic basis, she says, but is often the result of a new mutation rather than an inherited gene. More than 800 genes have so far been linked to the condition, but none of these is associated with more than one percent of individuals, so Hill says it is likely that autism is actually a group of conditions.

As a result, no two autistic people are the same. Those most severely affected are nonverbal and need help with routine activities, but others excel intellectually, with people like Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Charles Darwin all believed to have been on the spectrum.

Those with ASD generally refer to themselves as “neurodiverse” and describe other people as “neurotypical”.

Autism and the search for work

Sharing the Autism at Work launch with Wittenberg were a number of key stakeholders, including parents of young adults who are on the autism spectrum. They explained what their children, and others, have experienced in their search for work.

“My son got work in the staffroom of his old school through the government’s Mainstream Supported Employment scheme. It provided wages and employment support for two years, with the expectation that the job would become permanent.

“It went well, until the management team that he reported to changed and he lost his support network. Since then he has had no regular employment.

“Another autistic man in his late 30s—estranged from his family—combines part-time work caring for an elderly man with voluntary work, but tends to fall out with local community groups over their lack of respect for “rules”.

“His lack of [regular] employment causes him great distress, and Work and Income often cuts off his benefit. But he’d be an excellent employee if given a chance, good support, and a written list of rules for everyone to follow.”

—Dr Hilary Stace, Health Services Research Centre, VUW.

“I have two sons, both with ASD. They are quite different people, but what they’ve got in common is anxiety. It’s triggered in quite different ways for each of them, but often gets in the way.

“The elder one, now 27, completed school up to Year 12, but has since had a patchy employment history, and never held a full-time job. Last year he did some video editing work on a documentary about [racing driver] Scott Dixon, and did a really good job. He has a very nice feel for video editing, which he taught himself.

“His brother, now 24, we had to take out of school at 12. He writes game reviews, and has been paid for one or two of them, but hasn’t had employment.

“Being in a work environment is going to be a problem for him because he has very limited ability to filter out [extraneous] noise. He’s extremely good at using software as a tool, and we thought he was going to be the textbook nerd genius that could cut code, but it turned out that wasn’t where his head was at at all.”

—Russell Brown, blogger, publisher and journalist.

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM is a freelance journalist and former editor of Safeguard.

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