SAP Puts Faith in Autistic Tech Specialists

SAP Headquaters in Walldorf, Germany
Ulrich Baumgarten | Getty Images
SAP Headquaters in Walldorf, Germany

German business software company SAP will start to employ people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists across the world as it teams up with Denmark's Specialisterne.

The Danish company was formed in 2004 to ensure that the talents of autistic people were utilized in technology-oriented jobs, which are particularly suited to individuals with autism.

Specialisterne, which already has operations in the U.S. and a host of European countries, will extend its network to facilitate SAP's global expansion of the autism scheme. SAP will become the first company to work with Specialisterne on a global basis.

"By concentrating on the abilities that every talent brings to the table, we can redefine the way we manage diverse talents," said Luisa Delgado, member of the Executive Board of SAP.

"With Specialisterne, we share a common belief that innovation comes from the 'edges.' Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century."

SAP made the announcement following a successful pilot in India where they hired six autistic people to work as software testers. Specialisterne CEO Steen Thygesen told CNBC that as a result of this, "the whole SAP group in India became much more in tune with one another. They became more efficient and motivated, creating a better work environment."

SAP Labs in India managed to develop a consumer iPad application that assists with the education of children with autism.

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Carol Povey, the director of the Centre for Autism at the U.K.'s National Autistic Society, said it is clear why companies are attracted to having people with autism in the workplace.

"For many people, it's their ability to focus on small details which may be difficult for people who don't have autism, and to be able to focus on something for a long period of time and not get bored or distracted. It's really the attention to detail, ability to focus and actually a lot more generic skills, such as reliability and punctuality," Povey said.

She stressed that firms were increasingly drawn to people on the autism spectrum because of a need to be better than their competitors.

"We're seeing more and more companies that are looking specifically for the skills that people with autism can offer - not because they see it as social responsibility, but actually thinking that if they are going to be competitive these are the skills that they need," she said.

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One of the reasons why people with autism often have difficulty finding employment - bar employers failing recognize the specific skill sets they have to offer - is the problems some autistic people have working in social settings.

"Sometimes autistic people have sensory differences, and busy, open-plan offices can be difficult for them," Povey said. "So for some people they will need an adapted environment with less stimulation so that they can really focus on their tasks. Some people are better able to work at home."

Specialisterne CEO Thygesen explained that the company primarily acts as a recruiter, ensuring that the best people with autism are recruited and find the right place to work.

"We employ autistic people ourselves and basically say to companies that we can offer these people for certain types of activity," he said.

"With SAP this will also include us helping SAP to recruit staff inside the organisation and we will help SAP become more competent at hiring the right people with autism for specific roles. This is what we want to scale around the globe: we have a goal to have one million autistic people employed around the world and we want to make companies aware of the abilities of people with autism."

For Thygesen, it is about making companies competent in identifying the potential within people with autism, matching certain abilities with specific roles and becoming aware of how to integrate people into the company ethos.

The company allows for people with different areas of expertise, with positions ranging from simpler roles involving data entry, to more complex jobs that involve algorithms. "We have people with PhDs and people with no formal education at all," he said.

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Specialisterne hopes to spread their work further following SAP's announcement.

Thygesen told CNBC that their work in North Dakota in the U.S. could hopefully see Specialisterne work with Microsoft in the future, after the company showed interest in the Danish firm. They already have a strong U.S. presence given their work with CAI, which has over 3,000 employees and has its headquarters in Pennsylvania and a strong presence in Delaware.

He said he sees real potential in the SAP partnership, given the company's promise that 1 percent of its 65,000-strong workforce would be people with autism by 2020.

"This could be a significant number of employed autistic people, and help us see more companies follow SAP's lead," he said.