Our Autism at Work Program: Five Years Later

Looking back five years ago, Apple was releasing the iPhone 5, selfies, and emojis were introduced to pop culture, and Twitter announced its IPO. During the same time we at SAP launched our groundbreaking Autism at Work program, with a goal of integrating people with autism into the workforce. Since the launch, the initiative has not only grown internally within SAP’s organization, but it has served as an example for other organizations like Microsoft, EY, and HPE, who have since launched autism inclusion programs of their own.

While the world has certainly changed in the past five years since the Autism at Work program began, the drive and passion behind the program has not. To be successful and prepare the business for challenges and opportunities ahead, we need to incorporate different ways of thinking by accommodating the abilities and working styles of colleagues throughout the organization. With one percent of the global population affected by disorders belonging to the autism spectrum, we want to reflect the diverse perspectives of the world within the enterprise.

Because we want to attract the best talent in our industry, Autism at Work was designed to hire skilled colleagues “in spite of autism and because of autism,” bringing different and more diverse perspectives to our creative process. We want to promote an inclusive work environment that considers the special needs and skills of each employee since the diversity of our employees helps us to get a better understanding our customers, develop innovative solutions, and stay competitive in a global economy.

Despite the challenges associated with autism, new colleagues are arriving at SAP displaying resilience, loyalty, dedication, and a burning desire to work and contribute to the company. Because of autism, we are able to capture the inherent abilities that are often associated with people on the autism spectrum, including visual learning skills like the ability to recognize patterns, and attention to detail — the ability to spot deviations in data, information, and systems. These employees frequently have high diligence and low tolerance for mistakes, as well as a strong affinity with predictable, structured, process-oriented environments that results in strong process optimization capabilities. They’re making valuable additions to SAP’s workforce.

Autism at Work: Where It Is Today

The Autism at Work initiative currently includes approximately 150 colleagues and has launched in 24 locations across 12 countries, thanks to the strong partner network established in every Autism at Work location. In alignment with our strong commitment to gender diversity, we’ve hired a solid mix of both male and female employees through the Autism at Work program. The roles occupied by those on the autism spectrum span human resources, marketing, finance, software development, and customer support and range from task-oriented jobs supporting business operations to more complex jobs in creative areas like software development. We continue to work closely with the Danish company Specialisterne and other partners like Integrationsamt, a governmentally driven department helping people with a disability in the labor market in Germany, to employ people with autism in a wide range of roles across multiple lines of business.

While hiring and supporting employees on the autism spectrum at SAP is a huge part of the Autism at Work program, we want to lead by example externally. Each April, we celebrate Autism Awareness Month by hosting events across the globe to promote the Autism at Work Program and to dispel the stereotypes associated with autism. This year, the celebrations included over 30+ events, activities, and articles circulated around the world, each with local flair. SAP Labs in India celebrated with multiple events such as a cyclothon, and SAP America co-hosted the third annual Autism at Work summit at Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle, along with EY, Ford, JP Morgan, Chase, and DXC.

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Members of SAP’s D&I executive team attended the United Nation’s World Autism Awareness Day 2018, along with actress Dakota Fanning and director Ben Lewis, to bring more exposure to the dynamic for people with autism, in particular women on the autism spectrum.

Autism at Work: What the Future Brings 

So, what do the next five years hold for Autism at Work? While we have created goals, as my colleague, Jose Velasco says, “it’s a moving target” and we want everyone to be their authentic self and be recognized for what they contribute. With our mission statement in mind — to help the world run better and improve people’s lives — we want to create a sustainable program that challenges assumptions, sparks innovation, and drives change by embracing neurodiversity.

Sarah Loucks

Sarah Loucks is a global HR professional who enjoys drawing from diverse perspectives to think holistically and question the status quo. She is passionate about creating inclusive workplaces where everyone can shine in their own way. After several years driving strategic topics as an HR business partner, she transitioned to the Global Diversity & Inclusion Office as the global co-lead for SAP’s Autism at Work program.