A 'rich echosystem of support' for adults with autism led to one young employee filing two patents for SAP

AUTISM SUPPORT: Jose Velasco, U.S. ambassador of Autism at Work, an employment initiative of global tech giant SAP, where Velasco is vice president of product development. Courtesy Jose Velasco

Meet Jose Velasco, vice president of product development for worldwide software giant SAP, and head of the U.S. initiative of Autism at Work, a global SAP program. He's also the father of two sons who are on the autism spectrum.

Since it launched in 2013, Autism at Work has placed more than 160 employees who have autism in a variety of positions across 13 countries and in 28 locations - including at its North American headquarters in Newtown Square.

Here, Velasco talks about why the initiative makes good business sense, how neurodiverse-friendly employment practices can change a company's DNA - and his hope that, in five years, Autism at Work is a thing of the past.

Question: How did Autism at Work get started?

Answer: We began in 2012 with a small pilot program in Bangalore, India, with a few people with autism working in areas of data quality and software testing. The pilot resulted from a relationship we'd built with Specialisterne (the Danish tech company whose employees with autism are seen as giving the company a competitive business advantage). It went really well, and we announced Autism at Work the next year.

Q: You've said that, in the workplace, "Innovation comes from the edges." Can you elaborate?

A: It's essential to invite people with different perspectives into the creative process. If we do that systematically, we become better innovators. SAP has over 437,000 customers in more than 180 countries, so our products have to be able to address a diversity of needs across many, many segments. By having broad perspectives _ including the neurodiversity perspective _ reflected in our work, we have the potential to create better products overall.

Q: What have employees with autism brought to your workforce?

A: There's a segment of people on the autism scale whose natural talents match those needed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. They have exceptional memory skills, and see patterns in systems and in data that others might not see. Not every person with these skills will be able to manifest them in the workplace, but many have never been given the opportunity to try _ there's an 85% unemployment rate among people with autism. But if you pair their unique skills with the abilities they might bring as software developers and data scientists, you realize that not only is there a significant talent pool out there, it's a well-qualified one.

Q: For example?

A: One of our colleagues with autism is in his mid-40s and came to us after being unemployed for five years - he was often homeless. No one would give him a chance. Today, he's one of our highest-rated consultants - he's brilliant, kind, and just an exceptional person. Also, when someone who has experienced his kind of hardship joins your workplace, wow, talk about bringing a different perspective to colleagues who don't sit that far away from you - it impacts how they view their work and their job.

Q: Does SAP also employ people with autism in non-tech jobs?

A: Absolutely. We have 28 different roles in the company, and they're filled by people with and without disabilities. The jobs range from being very task-oriented, systematic and procedural to ones where people are creating the next generation of technology. If we have a business need and find that the person with the most capability happens to be on the autism spectrum, we'll offer them the job.

Q: So neurodivergent people have broadened your potential hiring pool.

A: Exactly. We've also expanded the footprint of Autism at Work to include internships and apprenticeships so that the umbrella of opportunity is bigger than when we started.

Q: Meaning what?

A: About 99% of the neurodiverse people we've spoken with were never exposed, during school, to companies where they'd get a chance to touch, feel, and experience what a corporate workplace is like. Our interns get that chance. One year, all 18 of our interns, high school seniors, either went on to two- or four-year college, or joined the military, or got jobs; everyone was doing something substantial with their lives. We hired one intern after his high school graduation - and within eight months he co-filed two patents for SAP. Eight months! Not many people here have ever filed a patent, myself included. We come in, work hard, and contribute to SAP's bottom line. But then there are people with exceptional talent who file a patent on behalf of the company.

Q: How have neurodivergent employees changed the workplace?

A: People say they've become better managers; they have to communicate more clearly because that's what works best for workers with autism. One manager noted that there's a high number of IT projects that never make it to fruition because of ambiguity in communication. So, interestingly, communicating more explicitly for people on the spectrum is making things better for everybody.

Q: What's the downside of what you do?

A: Not being able to hire everyone who comes through the door. That's hard - there's a high need and people put so much hope in programs like ours. So we share the program with other companies; 290 have expressed interest and some now have full programs in place. We want to work with high schools, universities, and companies - with 500,000 employees, or just five - to create a rich ecosystem of supports for people on the spectrum.

Q: What's the most common misperception about neurodivergent employees?

A: That they have "token" positions - not real ones. That's not true. We hire into our core business areas and the jobs contribute to the bottom line. Our dream is that any company _ whether it's a bakery or a florist or a Fortune 500 corporation - will expand their hiring search to include neurodiverse employees. Not every person with a disability is going to be an engineer or data scientist, but not every job possibility is in STEM. They're in every field.

Q: What's your hope for Autism at Work?

A: That in five years it will be obsolete, because this way of hiring will have become so mainstream that programs like ours aren't needed any more. That's when you've achieved success.

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