PhillyDeals: Law and skills have companies seeking autistic workers

Posted: May 06, 2014

The U.S. Department of Labor's order last fall - under Section 503 of the Americans With Disabilities Act - that large government contractors show that 7 percent of their workers are "individuals with disabilities," is one reason tech companies are seeking to hire people with autism.

Autism, a group of conditions that typically include repetitive behavior, can make working in many environments difficult.

But the federal order is not the only reason some companies are looking for people with autism. Some autistic people have skills that computer companies need.

"We anticipate that they have good memory, that they can see patterns, that they have consistency in repetitive tasks," says ThorkilSonne, head of Specialisterne (Specialist Works), a Wilmington-based foundation that helps develop training programs for autistic workers.

On Thursday, SAP AG, the German-based business-software giant, held an Autism Awareness Day that marked the hiring of five autistic workers at its U.S. headquarters in Newtown Square and seven at its tech center in Palo Alto, Calif. The move comes two years after SAP hired its first autistic staffers in Bangalore, India; and Dublin, Ireland.

"I think this will be a very good thing, to leverage their talents for our customers," Holger Graf, a director and academic instructor at SAP, told me.

"Based on what I understand about autism, if a client sends us a couple of gigabytes of log files, and we need to look at that log file and tell me what's there, this is a task that comes very handily" for the autistic, Graf added. "They have a low tolerance for error. They are very thorough and reliable."

Sonne moved Specialisterne from his native Denmark to Wilmington in 2013 at the invitation of Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and leaders of the Welfare and Longwood Foundations, du Pont family-funded charities that agreed to underwrite part of Specialisterne's work.

Sonne has visited SAP's initial autism project, in Bangalore.

"In India, the same five [autistic] people who started with the company are there now," said Jose Velasco, who oversees SAP's autism program. "Their team cohesion is really good. These folks are producing like everyone else."

Velasco said Indian vocational-rehabilitation departments had referred autistic candidates to the company, some with college degrees, and Specialisterne helped design four-week training programs.

A number of big companies have autism hiring programs, including Walgreens, the drugstore chain, said Dana D'Angelo, a professor at Drexel's LeBow College of Business. "A lot of it has been focused on backroom employees. But SAP seems to have found a very interesting niche on the technical side," she told me.

SAP hopes people with autism make up as much as 1 percent of its workforce (currently more than 60,000) by 2020, says Velasco.


JoeD@phillynews.com

215-854-5194

@PhillyJoeD

www.inquirer.com/phillydeals

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