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SAP’s Autism at Work Summit Day 1: “We want you. We need your skills and your magic.”

April 22, 2016 by Angela Schuller 13

Magic. According to emcee Nick Tzitzon, senior vice president and head of executive communications, Global Corporate Affairs at SAP, it defines the work of the colleagues who have come to SAP through its Autism at Work program.

Introducing Jen Morgan, president of SAP North America, and Governor Jack Markell, state of Delaware, Tzitzon set the stage for why the Autism at Work Summit is so important to companies that embrace diversity, like SAP.

“Our focus is on innovation and bringing people with different backgrounds together,” Morgan said as she welcomed Governor Markell to the stage. “It’s good for business and it raises everyone’s game.” She talked about the discussions she’s had with her colleagues — many of whom have become friends — who have come to SAP through the program. “People love to work here, and SAP gets better because of it. SAP’s public and private partnerships in the community are moving the needle for us in our hiring and recruitment practices.”

SAP’s focus is on innovation and bringing people with different backgrounds together.

Governor Markell agreed. With an established platform to advance the employment of differently-abled people in his home state, Governor Markell indicated that the success of programs such as SAP’s initiative is incumbent on companies learning from one another. “Not because it’s charitable – because it is the right thing to do,” he said.
“If you want to compete, [you] need to bring in better services,” the Governor explained. With support from global partner Specialisterne, and local partners like the Department of Rehabilitation, EXPANDability, the Arc, and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, SAP now has 100 employees globally who were recruited through Autism at Work program, with 50% of those hired thru the program in SAP’s North America offices. He encouraged businesses in attendance to look beyond traditional hiring practices and implement similar programs inside their organizations. “If SAP can do this, others can.”

“Different, not less”

Steve Silberman, award-winning author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, delivered the keynote for the event. Sharing stories on the history and science of Autism gleaned from his years of research for the book, Silberman pointed out that people on the spectrum face challenges every day because they aren’t adequately supported in most communities and workplaces. Though some adults with Autism were regarded as gifted in a number of areas as children, most are unemployed or are forced to take positions for which they are overqualified. Programs like SAP’s Autism at Work initiative, he explained, are “building templates of best practices for inclusion of people on the spectrum and setting a leadership example for the rest of the world.” A week later, Mr. Silberman delivered the keynote speech at the United Nations World Autism Awareness Day, where he highlighted the SAP Autism at Work Summit and SAP’s Neurodiversity efforts.

“The Geek Syndrome”

In December 2001, Silberman wrote an article that redefined Autism for so many people. He included a discussion with Kirk Wilhelmsen, a neurologist who described himself and his son as being somewhere on the spectrum that gives some insight into the beauty of neurodiversity. “If we could eliminate the genes for things like Autism, I think it would be disastrous,” said Wilhelmsen in the article. “The healthiest state for a gene pool is maximum diversity of things that might be good.”

The Experts Speak on SAP’s Autism at Work Program

Anka Wittenberg, SAP’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, and Stefanie Nennstiel and Jose Velasco, co-leads of SAP’s Autism At Work program, provided insight into the initiative and why it has become central to SAP’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It’s essential to customers, to driving innovation and to engaging its workforce. “It’s important to us to bring in people whose brain is wired differently, who see things differently, to really help us be innovators,” Wittenberg said of the initiative.

Autism at Work is essential to customers, to driving innovation and to engaging the workforce.

Because of, and in Spite of, Autism

“Through formal education and/or experience, our colleagues bring skills that are needed in our organization in multiple functional areas ranging from software development, to human resources, to communications. In addition, our colleagues bring a different perspective in problem solving and may also bring specialist skills that some individuals on the autism spectrum are known to have, such as a gifted memory or the ability to identify deviations in systems or data,” Velasco shared. With a growth plan that spans five years, SAP’s Autism at Work Program wasn’t built on reaching a target. SAP identified a need – there are 50,000 open jobs in IT in the Bay Area, for example – and found the candidates with the special skills to fill them.

SAP’s Autism at Work program is the very definition of looking outside the recruitment box, but Velasco explains that what makes it noteworthy is the fact it’s mainstream at SAP. “It’s becoming a part of our DNA as a company. We’re looking to make the program go from extraordinary to ordinary.”

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