Diversity & Inclusion at SAP: Autism at Work

For three years, Stefanie Lawitzke has been supporting autistic colleagues through their working days as part of SAP’s Autism at Work program.

Stefanie Lawitzke understands the anxieties and daily challenges that people with Asperger’s syndrome face. Throughout their school days, support workers help those affected to manage everyday situations better.

Stefanie Lawitzke is a project manager for Autism at Work in Germany.

“After leaving school, however, things change,” says Lawitzke. “Many have studied for years, but instead of failing in the subject matter, tend to be unable to understand the framework conditions – and sometimes the dissertation doesn’t get written.” Some work as graduate mathematicians in the construction industry, others are unemployed because they are unable to adapt to working life.

Autism at Work: Eight Countries and 10 Locations Worldwide

When it first became known three years ago that SAP intended to launch a “pilot location” in Germany that would employ people with Asperger’s syndrome as part of the “Autism at Work” project, there was a wave of interest. “So many people applied to join us, from landscape gardeners and mechanics through to programmers,” recalls Lawitzke. “You could sense the enormous air of desperation.”

The HR team at SAP was faced with the challenge of handling all the applications while also responding to the many external queries.

Lawitzke, who was then working in product management for analytical banking software, came on board – initially in a 20% role, and today full-time as the local lead in Germany for Autism at Work. Lawitzke already had plenty of experience with Asperger’s syndrome through her son, who is now 18.

“People with autism can work very well under certain conditions, but now and again, they need people to help them,” she says. However, the training needs to be right to secure one of those jobs in development, quality management, or service and support that particularly seem to inspire people with autism. SAP is currently running the Autism at Work initiative at 10 locations in eight countries – a real exception in business, where so few companies concern themselves with the one percent of society that is classed as being on the autistic spectrum.

Some Autists Can “See Codes as Pictures”

Jim Miller (name changed, editorial note) is one of 22 people with Asperger’s syndrome currently employed by SAP. The trained IT specialist started working as a software developer at SAP in September 2015. Now 32, he sent several applications after splitting from his previous employer and training company in late 2014 by mutual agreement. However, Miller slipped through the net as a result of his mediocre qualifications – and not because of his autism diagnosis, which he never once mentioned.

Miller speaks of there being a “huge difference” between school and university grades and what a person with Asperger’s is actually capable of. When he was just six, without being able to read a book or study any descriptions, he assembled his first computer.

And when working as an administrator, he constantly astonished his colleagues by solving problems that they did not even understand yet. “I can see codes as pictures in front of my eyes,” says Miller, who now develops IoT platforms for industrial applications.

Stefanie Lawitzke, the “Translator of Perceptions for Autistic People”

One thing was clear in the application to join SAP: it’s about people’s attitudes toward people with Asperger’s. “I don’t want to keep it a secret,” says Miller.

The employer was also aware of another challenge. “Often people with Asperger’s syndrome lack the intuitive skills to respond appropriately to social situations,” explains Lawitzke, who sees herself as a “translator of perceptions for autistic people”, that is, an intermediary between the “neurotic SAP world and the world of those colleagues on the autistic spectrum.”

This is important, because she understands the often very direct manner of the new team members very well, which irritates some colleagues. Lawitzke, however, values the “authentic and genuine manner” of the employees she supports. For example, if Miller discovers an error in software, he doesn’t keep silent about it, even if it means the new release has to be postponed by a day, which can lead to significant added ad-hoc costs.

“I’m very happy with my team,” says Miller, talking about his SAP colleagues, who show him “plenty of understanding and tolerance.” And that shouldn’t be taken granted. “There are a lot of prejudices that cause companies to steer clear of us,” believes Miller, but they “would learn otherwise by hiring us.”

It’s great to see how it’s grown. – Stefanie Lawitzke

Autistic People at Work and Prejudices

Of the 23 new hires in the last three years, only one is no longer at SAP because he had to leave due to serious illness. All the others are still with the company, which is also testament to Lawitzke’s success. She says: “The trick is not the recruitment, but the retention.”

One indication as to why this has been so successful is the group that now regularly meets at weekends, helps with house moves, or goes hiking. “It’s great to see how it’s grown,” says Lawitzke. And Miller is also inspired by the monthly get-together of the “leisure group” with whom he recently visited Schwetzinger Palace. But it still hasn’t changed his favorite hobby – computers. Miller’s most recent stroke of genius: a self-built 3D printer.