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Tech Firm Sees Benefit From Employees On The Spectrum

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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 was.


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 instructions.


The approach provides candidates with a relaxing environment and gives employers time to discover the prospective employee's special skills.


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 college.


"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

This article was originally produced by Disability Scoop

 

To view the entire article visit the Disability Scoop website. http://www.disabilityscoop.com/2014/12/19/tech-benefit-spectrum/19930/

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