Tech Firm Sees Benefit From Employees On The Spectrum
Pick a date, any date in history, and Joe Cintas
can tell you, with only a moment's pause, what day of the week it
Diagnosed with autism at age 3, Cintas wields astonishing brain
power when it comes to numbers and finding patterns, but, like many
with his disability, his talents often have been overlooked in the
workplace. Despite having a college degree in environmental
studies, he spent the past 14 years pushing carts as a grocery
store clerk before finding his niche at SAP, where he makes good
money testing medical software for bugs.
Cintas' life changed in March when he was hired at SAP's Palo Alto
office, along with six other employees, as part of the German
software company's groundbreaking Autism at Work program. Developed
with Danish company Specialisterne, a pilot project proved
successful in India, so SAP brought it to the U.S., first to
Silicon Valley and later to Pennsylvania, Germany, Canada, and next
year, Brazil. So far, 42 employees with autism have been hired at
eight SAP locations around the world.
"I never felt comfortable in an interview process; I didn't know
how to express myself properly," Cintas said. "Working here at SAP
has been a dream come true for me. I don't know what I would've
done had I not been hired here. I would've continued to flounder
professionally and emotionally."
Most paid a low wage
While company programs for hiring employees with autism are
nothing new, they've usually involved low-wage, simple tasks. SAP
is among the first to embrace the idea that some of those with
autism can excel in skilled positions.
Initially limited to software testing, the program quickly spread
to other areas, including software development, customer support
and graphic design. Impressed with the early success, SAP is
planning to bring the program to its other Bay Area offices in
Dublin, South San Francisco and possibly Sunnyvale.
"We hire people in spite of autism and because of autism," said
Jose Velasco, head of SAP's Autism at Work program in the U.S.
"It's not a disability play; it's a skills play."
In general, Velasco said, many employees with autism can
concentrate on repetitive tasks for long periods, have superior
attention to detail, communicate honestly, and bring new
perspectives to the workplace - all traits employers can use to
their competitive advantage. The biggest challenge for the program
thus far, Velasco said, hasn't had anything to do with issues
related to autism; it's been keeping up with the barrage of
requests for information. SAP has been approached by 30 companies
interested in starting their own versions, Velasco said, including
12 in the Bay Area.
In a society trained to see eye contact and a firm handshake as
signs of a desirable employee, many adults with autism struggle in
typical job interviews. SAP doesn't conduct interviews; instead,
recruiters observe as candidates build robots out of LEGOS, and
they are evaluated on teamwork and their ability to follow
The approach provides candidates with a relaxing environment and
gives employers time to discover the prospective employee's special
Support from employer
New hires are presented with a strong circle of support, including
trained job coaches, team buddies and mentors who provide them with
a valuable social outlet. The employees and their mentors shoot the
breeze, have lunch and engage in activities outside of work, like
chess matches and potluck dinners with family and co-workers.
Mark Lazarus, a development architect at SAP, had a personal
interest in joining the program as a mentor. Having a son diagnosed
with autism, he's agonized over how his child would survive after
"There were many nights I wouldn't sleep; you don't know what's
going to happen with the future," Lazarus said. "This program tells
all parents with kids on the spectrum, 'There is hope. Don't give
up.' It's the light at the end of the tunnel."
SAP has committed to hiring 650 people with autism - 1 percent of
its 65,000 global employees - by 2020. In doing so, the company is
fishing from a largely untapped labor pool.
The number of people diagnosed with autism is growing rapidly
nationally - one in 68 children had autism in 2010, up from one in
150 in 2000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. In California, unemployment rates among those with
autism spectrum disorder exceed 90 percent, according to Maria
Nicolacoudis, executive director of Expandibility, a San Jose
nonprofit that secures jobs for people with disabilities.
"There's always a supply and demand issue," Nicolacoudis said.
"This would be a good time to hire people with disabilities,
especially autism, but it has a lot to do with changing the ways
people think about autism … The interest is there; it's converting
it to action."
References and further information