analysis

SAP delivers a boost to employment of people with autism

Cliff Saran

Specialisterne, a social enterprise set up to help people with autism get into the workplace, has had a major breakthrough with SAP.

With only 15% of adults with autism in full-time employment, according to the National Autism Society, this global deal could have significant implications.

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In 2008, Computer Weekly spoke to Specialisterne, an organisation that was set up to provide employment in the software testing industry for people who have been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Specialisterne founder Thorkil Sonne said it has been approached by many organisations globally which are interested in the work he has been doing. The organisation has now signed a global deal with SAP. 

"This year, we will employ people for SAP in the US, Canada, Ireland and Bangalore. By 2020, our goal is that 1% of people working at SAP will be autistic," said Sonne.

The SAP relationship began several years ago, when Sonne was speaking at an event in Bangalore. "I visited SAP Labs, where there was a volunteers programme for employees to allow them to help children with autism use modern technology," he said.

Sonne kept in touch with SAP and started a pilot, employing five people with autism in Bangalore, which was a success. 

“We are very excited by this opportunity to enable SAP with global access to a huge pool of untapped talent, and therefore help strengthen SAP’s position as a global leader in innovation," he said.

"SAP is the first multinational company to partner with us on a global scale. The partnership will position SAP as thought leader and motivate the ecosystem to follow its example,” added Sonne.

Software testing employment for autistic people

The main benefits that autistic individuals bring to the workplace are that they are methodical and exhibit great attention to detail. 

Other attributes that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can exhibit include motivation, focus, persistence, precision and the ability to follow instructions, according to Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne.

These skills have come in useful for the task of software testing, checking documentation and ensuring functional specifications do not contradict.

Empowering people on the autistic spectrum

The global announcement follows successful pilot projects in India and Ireland that demonstrate the positive impact of empowering people with autism to excel in their areas of strength, which include a methodical nature and particular attention to detail. 

Working locally with Specialisterne, SAP Labs in India hired six people with autism as software testers for SAP Business Suite applications. The Ireland pilot is currently completing the screening phase for five positions to be filled this year.

SAP represents a major win for the organisation, which was set up to help people with autism gain employment. 

When Computer Weekly spoke to Sonne in 2008, he had pioneered a programme using Lego Mindstorm as a way to introduce autistic people to software testing. At the time, he said the nature of the condition meant some autistic people made excellent software testers.

Specialisterne still uses Lego in its training programme, but training is now being optimised. Sonne hopes to "cut training to between one and five months”. 

Through this training, Specialisterne works to make people with autism comfortable in the workplace by defining their comfort zone and building a personal profile. It is these details that enable the people to be managed effectively, and feel at ease, when they are in a work environment.

I am confident there will be one million jobs for autistic people. The goal seems crazy, but the SAP relationship shows our strategy can work

Thorkil Sonne, Specialisterne

Ambitious goal of one million jobs for autistic people

In 2011, Specialisterne established an office in Scotland, but when the country was hit severely by the financial crisis, Sonne had to downsize. "We are now starting to set up in London," he said, "and we have an office in Dublin." This is located in the SAP campus.

The company is now established in the UK as a registered charity and a separate trading company with a general manager, Tommy Brundage, who is in the process of seeking funding to build the business.

Sonne has also set his sights on the US, where he has seen a lot of interest and hopes to create 100,000 US jobs for people with autism.

He said SAP paves the way for other companies to follow: "I am confident there will be one million jobs for autistic people. I want to help companies by using our knowledge to enable them to employ people. The goal seems crazy, but the SAP relationship shows our strategy can work.

"Our goal is to set up showcases to demonstrate how we can take people who are seen as unemployable and enable them to work. I want to encourage firms to do something similar."


Image: Thinkstock


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