Untapped talent: the business case for an autistic workforce

Untapped talent: the business case for an autistic workforce
"Silicon Valley wouldn't exist without people on the Autistic spectrum."

When trying to formulate a game-changing plan or a crucial business breakthrough, organisations need all the sharp minds they can get.

As such, widening the recruitment net to cover new talent pools is a key strategy for many major firms, including software giant SAP, which is seeking to tap into the autistic community to uncover fresh talent.

We spoke to the group's senior product manager Florian Michaelsen to find how why he thinks autism is significant for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) world and how SAP is growing its autistic workforce.

TechRadar Pro: What is the link between people on the autistic spectrum and careers in STEM fields?

Florian Michaelsen: It's often said in the tech industry that Silicon Valley wouldn't exist without people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

This is because those on the high-functioning end of the spectrum often have an amazing ability to focus on tasks, zero tolerance for mistakes and an aptitude for understanding and analysing predictable, rule-based systems - which makes them uniquely suited to careers involving code, computers, software or more general structures.

TRP: Is there a business case for employing applicants with autism?

FM: Very much so! These people bring a different perspective to the workplace, as well as rare, special skills that can really contribute to the business and offer competitive advantage.

Innovation happens where people think differently; here at SAP, we're looking at how we can leverage these strengths while also helping autistic people to secure meaningful employment, with the aim of 1% of our workforce - about 650 people - being employees with autism, by 2020.

This is important for us – not primarily for philanthropic or corporate social responsibility reasons – but because we believe there's a genuine business case.

TRP: In what ways can businesses find and encourage those on the autistic spectrum to work for them?

FM: There are some great programmes around the world that provide advice and support to both employers and candidates alike. SAP works with Specialisterne – an internationally recognised organisation which works to enable jobs for high functioning people with autism.

Academic institutions can also be an excellent source of qualified, gifted candidates. SAP recently began a five-year partnership spearheading a unique new programme with The University of Cambridge, which will identify talented students for our Autism at Work programme worldwide.

TRP: Where do the challenges lie, and how can companies ensure they are doing it right?

FM: Companies employing people with ASD can face challenges in finding the right roles where autistic people can work most effectively, and provide the right working environment.

Despite their valuable skills, there's no question that individuals with autism might struggle to fit into traditional corporate environments, especially in social situations.

It's important to work with these employees to define and build up their comfort zones. SAP has a mentoring system and in rare cases we have made changes to the work schedule and environment to accommodate people with autism.

We also conduct a month of employee-adaptation training to develop employees' comfort level at working with the team.

When it comes to employing people with ASD it's as much about educating HR staff, managers and colleagues as it is about supporting the employees themselves. Give your organisation the time to learn, and prepare your workforce by informing them on autism – what it is, and what's it not.

There are lots of prejudices and many are incorrect: not everyone with ASD is like rain-man, and equally, they aren't all super heroes!

TRP: How does the recruitment process need to be adapted to support people on the autistic spectrum?

FM: Typical recruitment procedures can often create barriers for people with autism, so it's important to adapt these processes from the job advert through to the interview stage. In our sourcing process, we focus first on talent and later look at the individual challenges one might have.

If you think about it, this is a paradigm shift in recruiting. We also use gamification and observation rather than formal CV reviews or structured panel interviews.

TRP: Looking to the future, how commonplace do you think it will be for businesses to tap into the autistic workforce?

FM: IT is a global sector that values analytical thinking and attention to detail, and it is also an industry that's experiencing a skills shortage.

The global scarcity of talent forces us and all businesses to think in new ways – from an SAP perspective this is an easy fit, a low-hanging fruit if you will; It's estimated that some 85% of adults with autism are unemployed, so this potentially represents a unique untapped opportunity.

From a wider industry perspective, we're already seeing autism in the workplace growing in importance - I was recently invited by Autism Europe to talk at their Annual General Assembly about our work, as their 2014 theme is around Autism and employment. It was great to be a part of and we hope that events and initiatives like this will help encourage other businesses to tap into this talent pool.

We believe that innovation comes from the 'edges'. By employing people who think differently and spark innovation, businesses will be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century. SAP's Autism at Work initiative might be relatively small in scale now, but we believe that it offers great business potential, and that it's a model that other organisations can follow.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.