Embracing autism in business

SAP co-chief executive Jim Snabe (left) said during a recent visit to South Africa that autistic people are “significantly better than others at testing software”. Next to Snabe is the chief executive of SAP Africa, Pfungwa Serima. (SAP)

SAP co-chief executive Jim Snabe (left) said during a recent visit to South Africa that autistic people are “significantly better than others at testing software”. Next to Snabe is the chief executive of SAP Africa, Pfungwa Serima. (SAP)

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) affect millions of people worldwide, often limiting their ability to secure professional level jobs.

Autistic people prefer to work in isolation and may have preferred methods of doing things that do not fit into average workplace procedures.

On the other hand, most people with ASDs exhibit a tendency to be very detail-oriented and precise, and to enjoy repetitive tasks.

Software giants such as SAP AG are starting to recognise this precision and ability to focus as an asset in their lines of business.

SAP has partnered with Denmark-based Specialisterne ("specialist people") to train and recruit about 650 people with autism across its global operations.

The project, already underway in India and Ireland, has recruited people with autism as software testers, programmers and data handlers, with significant success.

SAP co-chief executive Jim Snabe said during a visit to South Africa earlier this year: "Autism is an interesting opportunity for a software company. We are now working with autistic people who are significantly better than others at testing software — it is a win-win situation," he said.

Luisa Delgado, former member of the executive board of SAP AG, human resources, said in announcing the project: "With Specialisterne, we share a common belief that innovation comes from the 'edges.' Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century."

Specialisterne has offices in the US, UK, Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Iceland and Poland, and aims to secure employment for a million people with autism.

The key to the success of the programme is Specialisterne's model, says Queen Mokonoto, SAP Africa HR manager, is that Specialisterne manages the assessment of candidates and the training of managers, mentors and colleagues.

She says that understanding and meeting the needs of people with autism in the work environment may not be easy without the assistance of specialists in the field.

However, she is excited about the project. "We have a motto: it's not about being different — it's about making a difference," she says.

"This partnership with Specialisterne is a new way to offer employment to people who may have challenges, while also securing excellent skills for our company."

Mokonoto says the project has not yet been implemented in South Africa or any other African countries because the project is related to software development, and SAP's development takes place primarily in Germany and India. However, she is optimistic that it may be implemented locally in future.

Claire Allen, national education facilitator at Autism South Africa, says the exact number of South Africans with ASDs is not known, although several years ago the figure was set at around 270 000 people.

"Many more high functioning autistic people may be undiagnosed and working, or people may be living in rural areas that we don't know about."

Allen says it is estimated in the US that about one in every 50 people has autism. In South Africa, this means around 11 200 children born this year will develop autism.

Around 75% of them have an additional intellectual impairment. She says that although their behaviour may be perceived as odd by others, they often excel in their chosen field of work.

"Early interventions are critical in assisting them through education and improving their employment prospects," says Allen. "But technology, and the need for software testers and programmers, presents a wonderful new career path for those who are interested in the field."

Decades ago, many of these people would not have been employed, she believed. "This would have been partly due to their not having the right interventions early enough. They might have ended up being employed to pack boxes, stuff envelopes or something equally repetitive."

Above-average abilities
Many people diagnosed with forms of the autism spectrum disorders, such as Asperger's Syndrome, have above-average abilities in logic and systems-based subjects, such as maths or music, and may become obsessed about a single subject.

Although they may also appear awkward and tend to have undeveloped social skills, their ability to focus at a high level on a single, repetitive task is emerging as a very useful skill in some sectors of IT.



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