Why IT companies are hiring employees on the autism spectrum
Superior data skills and focus prompts interest from tech giants such as SAP
‘Many people with autism are highly intelligent and are ideally suited to roles in science, IT and technical administration’
Blake is a data wizard. He can process and retain huge amounts of information, is gifted mathematically and a digital native who prefers coding to watching TV.
With such exceptional abilities he should have been snapped up by an employer. In fact, it took him almost five years to get a job after college. Why? Because he is on the autistic spectrum and companies were scared of hiring him.
Blake was highly stressed by the conventional interview process and didn’t do well when assessed using traditional evaluation tools. As a result, he ended up stacking shelves in a supermarket at night. This is not unusual for a person with autism. Only 20 per cent of those on the spectrum worldwide are in full-time employment.
Blake’s breakthrough came when he was interviewed by a HR manager with personal experience of autism. There was a learning curve on both sides when Blake joined the company, but after six months he had settled down and his co-workers had become familiar with his way of working.
There was no question of Blake being “carried”. He was well able to do the job and quickly became the go-to guy for product information because he remembered every tiny detail about every single item.
Six years on he is the company’s product guru and a senior member of its planning and data analysis team.
“About 80 per cent of those with autism are male – women seem to have the ability to mask it better – and while awareness of what they can offer is growing at corporate level, it is still very low,” says Peter Brabazon, general manager of the Irish arm of Specialisterne, a Danish organisation set up in 2004 to develop hiring and management practices to facilitate the employment of those on the autistic spectrum.
“What’s really making autism register more with employers now is the huge demand for talent, particularly in areas such as IT, where many high performing individuals on the spectrum excel.”
Specialisterne is hosted in Ireland by software corporation, SAP, which currently employs seven people with autism. The company’s goal internationally is to recruit 1 per cent of its global workforce (roughly 650 people) from the spectrum.
“Since we started our programme, we have had 12 people come through,” says Kristen Doran, senior HR business partner. “A couple of them were interns, some left and it didn’t work out for others. Our aim is to take things slowly and methodically in order to build the support structures needed and to be able to offer prospective employees a role that fits their level of ability.”
Specialisterne recruits and supports the candidates on behalf of SAP and there is also training for managers and other staff members who will be working alongside the new recruits.
Sense of cohesion
Speaking about the impact of the initiative on the company, Liam Ryan, managing director of SAP Ireland, says, “Employing people with autism has brought a greater sense of cohesion to our teams. It has also allowed us to bring additional talent on board through a different channel, as people with autism tend to be more technically minded and think in a diverse but structured way. This is a way of harnessing that talent and diversifying our workforce at the same time.”
Once you get over the basic issues, you get employees who are very focused, loyal and dedicated advocates for the organisation
SAP’s decision to start employing people with autisim came from an initiative at its operation in India where a senior manager had a child on the spectrum. The programme was piloted there in 2012 and subsequently adopted throughout the organisation in 2013.
Doran acknowledges that integrating people with autism into the workforce requires effort on the part of an employer. However, she says it’s mainly about educating co-workers and making them familiar with some of the common manifestions of the condition such as a dislike of noise and varying degrees of difficulty with communication and social interaction.
“In our experience, once you get over the basic issues, you get employees who are very focused, loyal and dedicated advocates for the organisation,” she says. “It has also had an impact on the rest of our workforce in that people are proud that SAP is involved in this initiative. A lot of people have been touched by autism in their lives and we have seen staff members who may themselves be on the spectrum self-identify as a result of the programme. This has helped them to be happier and more productive in their work.”
Specialisterne’s target group is those aged 18-44. The organisation works closely with parents and colleges to help assess and support young people as they look for employment.
“It’s about changing the mindset of the employer and dispelling their fear of the unknown, not changing the individual with autism,” Brabazon says. “It is in no way ‘sheltered’ employment, it is about recognising the considerable abilities of people with autism and supporting them where necessary.”
Brabazon says that with an estimated shortfall of around 7,000 jobs in the IT sector here, employers could benefit from thinking outside the box when it comes to filling these roles.
“Many people with autism are highly intelligent and are ideally suited to roles in science, IT and technical administration,” he says. “They are often very good at error detection and pay great attention to detail. In our experience they quickly become part of a team, are engaged employees and extremely hard working.”