New Hope for Autistic Job Seekers

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Multinational software corporation SAP will be making hundreds of jobs available worldwide to people on the autistic spectrum. Although these people are typically shunned in the workplace, many have unique skills and aptitudes.

People with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) often experience difficulties in traditional learning and workplace environments. For some time, the prevailing wisdom has been that these individuals require highly specialized intervention — intervention that is not always successful — to function in an adaptive manner on the job. But because persons with ASD often have certain abilities and skills many ‘normal’ individuals don’t, some folks are beginning to re-think this position. One German high-tech software company, SAP, has announced plans to hire up to 650 individuals with certain forms of autism, hoping to put to good use the unique skills and aptitudes that these persons on the autistic spectrum possess (see these articles from ABC News, MSN News, Business Insider, and The Telegraph).

For reasons not yet fully known, rates for various forms of autism have increased dramatically over the past several decades. As many as one in fifty males in the US have some form of the condition (prevalence rates also appear to vary by location, suggesting environmental causal links, none of which have been firmly identified). And, while persons who have milder forms of autism and who also get specialized attention and educational programming do fairly well in school settings, even these individuals still tend to experience significant difficulty and disappointment when it comes to finding a niche within the job market after graduation.

It’s not uncommon for persons with ASD to experience difficulty in the areas of interpersonal relations and verbal communication — skills that are often quite critical to performance in traditional working situations. But some occupational activities, especially within the high-tech industry, don’t depend as much on verbal or social skills. Rather, they seem tailor-made for individuals with very different skill sets. And some ASD individuals not only possess superior intelligence, but also are especially ‘gifted’ when it comes to repetitive activity, rote memorization, certain types of calculation, and tasks requiring high attention to detail. Others tend to think unconventionally and in especially creative albeit atypical ways. And whereas many companies have traditionally viewed ASD individuals as persons with disabilities that strain an organization’s support capacities, SAP is seeing a goldmine of special resources to tap. They see great potential in folks who make observations and process information differently from most. After all, it’s almost always the ‘outside the box’ type of thinking that turns a company’s attention in radically new directions and prompts the creative innovation that leads to new products and services.

Viewing itself as a forward-looking and inventive company, it seemed natural to SAP that they should deliberately seek out individuals who don’t perceive, think about, or deal with things in the usual ways. And in pilot programs last year, they tested the soundness of this notion. They found that the high attention to detail and acute ability to detect departures from usual patterns that some ASD individuals possess made them especially well-suited for certain positions in the areas of data entry, quality assurance, and software programming. They also found that certain ASD individuals are particularly good at simplifying complex tasks. Partly as a result of their findings, and seeing great promise in a program that would match important occupational tasks with the aforementioned and other special talents of persons with ASD, they drafted their unusual new hiring plan.

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SAP is partnering with another organization that has a long history of employing persons on the autistic spectrum. They also have the expertise to help SAP cut through some of the typical difficulties that ASD individuals experience during the interview and screening process. Historically, full-time employment rates for persons with autism lag far behind the rates for other groups (the National Autistic Society reports that in Britain, for example, only 15 percent of autistic adults are employed full-time). But SAP anticipates that various other partnerships will soon develop, and that those partnering efforts will eventually lead to the hiring of as many as 1 million persons with ASD.

Of course, the mere fact that some folks who’ve long had problems finding gainful employment will soon have a better shot at it is great news in itself. But perhaps even more impressive news here is the change of mindset that’s beginning to take place within the corporate world. To find promise, resources, and opportunity, where only disability and burden were seen before, is undoubtedly a major shift in perspective. And perhaps this shift in thinking will lead other companies — even companies outside of the high-tech and IT industries — to re-think their applicant screening and hiring practices.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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