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Work

Business finds being 'differently abled' pays

German software giant SAP announced they will recruit people with autism and says this will help them innovate. Is this a marriage made in heaven and a new future for differently abled people and technology?

"People with autism, they tell you exactly, very quickly if something is too complicated, they delete anything that isn't necessary, and that was a great lesson learnt for people working within our development department," says Anka Wittenberg, the Chief diversity and inclusion officer for SAP worldwide. SAP, the German business management software solutions company, has 65,000 people working for it around the globe.  Anka Wittenberg, as her job title would suggest, is busy rolling out an extensive diversity and inclusion program, and one of their current focuses is to work on employing people with autism, this year in Germany, Ireland, the US and Canada.

It started in India

"This particular initiative started in India about one and a half years ago," Wittenberg told DW, "and it was really driven by a couple of our employees, who were parents of children with autism. And [there] we started to work with the autistic society," using technology to help in communication difficulties which many children with autism suffer from. Then they got their developers to develop apps for autistic people, working directly with those with autism to work out what was needed. This project gave "such great feedback" for both the developers and the autistic people, that some of them were taken on in India to work in the testing and development department themselves.

A child with autism touches the screen with a virtual boy called Andy on it.
(Photo: Lars Bevanger, DW correspondent)

Children with autism often have difficulty communicating, but technology can be an enabler in this process

SAP Bangalore has started a "buddy scheme," where people with autism are paired with a developer or someone else within the company, and the arrangement brings benefits for both sides.  There are currently eight people with autism working in the testing and quality departments and Wittenberg proudly states that: "[our long time employees] found out that this was a very meaningful part that was added to their daily tasks…and it really gave them back a lot, a lot of happiness and they said that they were very much connected with [this new part of the job]."

'Communication can be a challenge'

Wittenbergadmits that sometimes communication can be a challenge, but they have found that in this case "technology is an enabler" for that communication. And the company benefits too, "in technology," explains Wittenberg, "we need people who can do repeated tasks of a very high quality in testing, and quality assurance, that's exactly what we need, it's a win win situation for both sides."

SAP are working with a Danish company called Specialisterne, or the Specialist People Foundation. The company was formed in 2004 and were the first in the world to base their business model on employing people with a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum. Their current aim is to employ a million people worldwide with autism over the next few years.  CEO of Specialisterne, Steen Thygesen, along with the founder Thorkil Sonne, both have sons diagnosed with autism. Their goal is to "create new possibilities for people with ASD (Autistic spectrum disorders) and to influence society to adopt a more positive attitude towards people with ASD" they work with young people and companies "in an attempt to tailor a working environment geared towards people with ASD, enabling them to use their specialist skills to act as consultants to the business sector, at market terms."

Changing the working world

A picture of children with autism in Chengdu, CHINA: at the Holy Love Special Education and Training Center in Chengdu, (Photo: LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

People with autism have very different abilities and conditions

Steen Thygesen's son is now 14. He says when his son was diagnosed they thought that as a family, "we know who our son is, what he can do, but what about the future?" and they found, he told DW, through working with the autistic society that "many of the people diagnosed have great talents but had never had a job." Their goal then was not just to find work for these people, allowing them to use those skills, but also to find work which motivated them and helped them progress. Thygesen's consulting work is all about helping companies to understand that "there are many other groups of people that with a bit of specialist understanding and consideration really could fulfill important roles within society."

Surpassing expectations

And Wittenberg is finding that too. One of their Indian autistic employees has far surpassed expectations, becoming, in just 6 months, one and a half times more productive than any other employee in the testing department, she says because he so enjoys the work he does, and can do repetitive work for hours at a very high level. The families of the new employees are also pleased, as they see their grown-up children able to start working towards a stable and bright future.

Around one percent of the world's population has a form of autism, and although the spectrum is very wide encompassing many different diagnoses within it, everyone with autism shares some similar traits. The spectrum condition, according to the National autistic society in the UK "is a developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to other people." Some people can live relatively independent lives, and others may have learning difficulties and need lots of specialist support.  People with Asperger's syndrome are just one part of the autistic spectrum, and they are often of average or above average intelligence. In the UK alone, over 51 percent of adults with autism have spent time without a job, and with no access to benefits. 61 percent of those out of work say they would like to work, which is where Specialisterne come in. As well as working with SAP, Specialisterne have just announced they will be rolling out training programs and initiatives in Spain in the summer of 2013.  One of the growing fields of employment for people with autism is technology related jobs.

 Image from director Berry Levinson's drama 'Rain Man' starring TOM CRUISE as Charlie Babbitt and DUSTIN HOFFMAN as Raymond Babbitt. Released on December 16, 1988. (Photo: by United Artists/ZUMA Press. (©) Copyright 2006 by Courtesy of United Artists)

Dustin Hoffman's character in the film 'Rain Man' had autism and difficulties communicating but an amazing gift for numbers

Motivation is key

Thygesen says "autism has some traits that come with it, which means that you are able to focus on a given task for a prolonged period of time, more than other employees of a company may be able to do." The key is motivation, he explains, of course people with autism are as diverse as any other population, but when you can match their unique skills with a job, and give them a task that motivates them, "that really then brings out this extreme ability to do something at a very different degree than most other people can do."

There are several different jobs that can be suited, but technology works particularly well for this group of people. "High levels of concentration fits well with finding errors in something, when you have this passion for detail, then you find someone can be extremely good at carrying out software tests, or quality control, or processing data, or really anything that needs large amounts of data over a long period of time, repetitive but where quality is really important to ensure the right outcome." He adds, "many people with autism have that ability to think differently, and so that is why they are so good at coming up with alternative solutions and solving new problems."

'We want the uniqueness of everyone at the table'

Wittenbergat SAP, would agree. She says that her work in diversity has changed the way she looks at people in a Human Resources sense too. "I worked 20 years in HR and I used to look more at what people are not good at, where the weaknesses were" she says when assessing whether they can do the job, now I look for strengths, "we look at what are the gifts, what are the abilities that everybody brings to the table." Wittenberg feels SAP are leading the way by working with Specialisterne.  "We want to create an environment where we can have the uniqueness of everybody at the table, because that's what we need to be innovative, and that's what diversity is really all about."

A picture of the German Software company SAP's logo (Photo: Ronald Wittek/dapd)

SAP are finding that employing differently abled people helps them innovate and is a win win situation for everyone concerned

Turning 'burdens' in to tax payers

Wittenbergquotes statistics which suggest that more and more people are being diagnosed with autism around the world. At SAP, she tells DW, their vision is to "make the world run better, and what does that mean? That means we need to find answers to issues that we are facing" which includes more and more people with autism. For them, diversity is the future; they think that having different kinds of mindsets at the table, including people with autism, and other differently-abled people means that they will innovate more and more in the future.

Innovation for the company and a stable future for the employee are a net benefit for everyone concerned. Thygesen explains that the biggest thing is for the autistic people themselves who are "given the chance to build an independent life. We can see from all the surveys that we are doing, that this issue of becoming independent and building your own career and moving in to your own flat - those are monumental parts of becoming an adult, and this is where we get the real benefit for society, because we turn people who used to be a burden on society into a tax payer, and we release resources into society from the people who used to take care of those, so people can go to work and contribute to the GNP and we have people now who are happy tax payers and making their own living." As Wittenberg adds, it's a "win win" situation for the future.