People with autism have a lot to offer (Guest Commentary)

SAP employee experiences firsthand success, support of company’s program
By Lydie Eustache
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/07/2015

I am a mother of two with a solid education in computer network administration and security, and I work for SAP Canada as a quality associate for wearable technologies. 


For an autistic person to be saying such a thing is still rather rare and wonderful. SAP’s Autism at Work program, which will ultimately lead to autistic people making up one per cent of its global workforce, gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.


It’s not easy for people on the autism spectrum to secure and hold down jobs. Not only am I happy to have found a job I can perform well in, but it’s also one that is suited to my interests and allows me to make an important contribution. 


My job has impacted my life in many positive ways. Making a good living for myself has lifted a heavy weight off my shoulders, and I can proudly tell people what I do for work. I am setting an example for my kids and I can give them everything they want. There is generally a much stronger sense of worth in my life.


It was a big leap of faith for SAP to set up the Autism at Work program, but it’s paying off by bringing really strong, long-lasting benefits to the company. This isn’t an altruistic pursuit for SAP — it’s one that is tapping into the unique talents of people on the autism spectrum to serve the business. 


After a successful pilot in India, the program has spread across North America and Europe. The focus is on finding people who excel in analytical thinking, have  prolonged attention to detail and the ability to address problems from different perspectives. These are all valuable assets in product development.


 So far, SAP is proving the concept can be successful and fully integrated into the business for its own gains. However, for that to be the case, the company has had to understand the quirks of people on different levels of the autism spectrum and use that knowledge to provide them with a comfortable working environment.


Autistic people often feel like they have to change who they are to fit in and, in doing that, they hide their autism. Recognizing how to interact with them and how to help them feel relaxed is the key to embracing and enhancing their performance. 


One of the most important things to remember is their strong tendency to take things literally, which means giving ambiguous direction or asking open questions is inviting disaster. 


Simply asking, “How are you?” will likely attract an excessively detailed and honest answer. It’s best to keep instructions and questions specific and calling for brief answers. Instead of “How are you?” ask “Are you well today?”


People across the autism spectrum have very different personalities, skill sets and problems so, like everyone else, we can’t be pigeonholed. 


However, there are more general symptoms that specialists tend to focus on when making their diagnoses.


Over-stimulation

One of these is sensitivity to over-stimulation. Lots of bright colours, noise and movement can trigger severe anxiety attacks that would take an employee’s concentration off his work.


Limiting the level of sensory input, by providing either noise-cancelling headphones or a smaller, less crowded work environment, can be very useful. Placing the person in a physical space where not many people pass by is a good idea. 


Offices typically do not decorate in bright colours, so this is usually not a problem, but the intensity of lighting can be difficult and even painful in some cases. Neon lights make lots of noise, especially when they need to be changed, as do ventilation systems. Paying attention to small details like these can make all the difference. 


As I already mentioned, autistic people can be painfully honest. This makes them unable to cope with office-related power mongering, political power-plays, and so on. They generally won’t scheme to get into better positions in the company, and they won’t notice if someone is manipulating them in order to do the same. 


Lacking that ability to see the “wolves” in the office is what causes a lot of the problems for autistic people at work. Every office has political struggles and drama, and it’s when autistic people unknowingly get involved with something they don’t understand that they can put their jobs at risk. 


Furthermore, they typically don’t have social filters, meaning they can’t see the difference between how to act with a CEO and a janitor.


I will end my advice to companies considering an autism hiring program on a positive note. When you consider that people on the autism spectrum tend to hate big changes in their lives, helping them be content at work could mean they remain extremely loyal and give you their very best. And in many detail-oriented roles, that “very best” can be much more impactful and consistent than you’d expect of someone who’s not on the spectrum.


At SAP, I’ve found a place I can be myself and be truly valued for it. Everyone on my team is unique and special in their own way, so I fit in perfectly. 


My work environment is small, quiet and offers very few distractions, and being able to socialize with similar people makes it much easier for me. It inspires me to believe there is a strong future for autistic people in the workplace.


Lydie Eustache works for SAP Canada in Saint-Hubert, Que.

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