“Your child is on the autism spectrum.” Whenever these words ring in a parent’s head, a sense of hopelessness overcomes them. What will the world be like for my child? Will she ever be fully accepted outside of the home? Will he ever become fully self-sufficient when he grows up? Will she find love, get married, and have a family? More important, will there be any good job opportunities?
Every year, approximately 36,500 of every 4 million children born in the United States are diagnosed with autism. And over the lifetime of each patient, it can cost parents upwards of $2.4 million, including special care and education for the child and lost career opportunities for parents. Meanwhile, 85 percent of autistic adults are jobless or underemployed.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. For many companies this year on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day will be more than just wearing blue, raising money, and paying lip service. Rather, they’re seizing the unique talents of these individuals to spark more innovation from people who are outside the mainstream.
SAP: Celebrating World Autism Awareness Day Every Day with Autism at Work
We’ve all read some amazing stories about children, teenagers, and even adults with autism who are gifted with a natural talent that could change how we look at the world. As Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer for SAP, I am thrilled that we have taken notice of their potential to be game changers.
At SAP, we are one of the first companies worldwide to be recruiting and hiring new employees on the spectrum. In a partnership with Specialisterne, a social business based in Denmark focused on helping people with autism find employment, SAP rolled out its Autism at Work initiative to help shift attitudes towards autism and inspire change.
According to Thorkil Sonne, the founder of Specialisterne, this initiative means that individuals on the spectrum can enter the world and know that they’re valuable. “A lot of people with disabilities have very low self-esteem, which comes from being reminded all the time of everything you’re not good at. Many people with autism find their self-esteem from what they do and not who they are in their social networks,” he says.
The Future of Work and Autism: A New Competitive Advantage
For SAP, Autism at Work quickly became more than just a feel-good, social responsibility program. Rather, it’s serving as an opportunity to employ talented people with a set of hard-to-find abilities that is offering a distinct competitive advantage, such as intelligence and memory, the ability to see patterns, and attention to detail.
However, an initiative like this is about much more than competitive advantage and gainful employment. It’s also about broadening the definition of workplace diversity and inclusion. Ari Ne’eman, president of the Washington DC-based Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and a member of the U.S. National Council on Disability, comments, “We need to see neurological diversity in much the same way as we’ve seen workplace diversity efforts in the past on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation.”
By acknowledging and embracing this condition and the potential it promises, companies stand to gain skills that cannot be found anywhere else. Jose Velasco, Global Co-Lead of the program at SAP and father of two autistic children, believes in the importance of training all employees of the Future of Work. “We need to be aware that this condition exists, and it is in the best benefit of the company to employ people that bring this type of skill set.”
How will your business celebrate World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 – and every day after that? Use #LIUB to share your experience and join us as we light the world up in blue this April.
Anka Wittenberg is chief diversity & inclusion officer at SAP.