SAP’s Highly Logical Choice

The German software house says that by 2020, 1 percent of its workforce will be on the autistic spectrum

If you were a go-with-your-gut captain of a starship, whom would you select as your second-in-command? The well-rounded fellow who enjoys a good party? Or the pointy-eared Vulcan with the hyperfocused, superlogical mind?

Of course you’d choose the Vulcan. That way, the “neurotypical” Capt. Kirk and the autistic Mr. Spock could together go where neither could go alone, as it were.

That’s one of the arguments being set forth by SAP, the German software giant that recently announced a policy of hiring autistic people. Another is the suite of skills that people on the autistic spectrum bring to the work force, among them pattern recognition, attention to detail, and patience for repetitive tasks. That’s particularly important for software testing, the job involved in a pilot study the company conducted at its office in Bangalore, India.

“We are changing our recruitment to focus a lot more on abilities people have,” says Anka Wittenberg, who heads the worldwide diversity effort at SAP headquarters, near Frankfurt. “I have been in human resources for 20 years, and I used to look at stuff candidates were not so good at, instead of looking at where they are strongest.”

She said the company is now recruiting in Ireland, and it plans to roll out a similar program in Germany later this year before moving on to North America. She said the goal is to have people on the autistic spectrum make up 1 percent of the company’s 65 000-strong workforce by 2020.

“I predict they’re already there,” writes Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., who has suggested that he himself might well be “on the spectrum.” It’s generally supposed that many top people in high-tech are, too.

What’s different here is that SAP plans to recruit at least some people on the spectrum who have so far not been able to get or keep jobs on their own. The minimum requirements are that the candidates must be smart and able to communicate clearly, at least in writing. “In the last few days, we’ve gotten inquiries from people with [autism],” says SAP spokesman Hilmar Schepp. “And we could not find a difference in the writing of their e-mails from that of normal people. This, of course, is a kind of prerequisite to work in a company.”

The task of recruiting candidates and training managers to accommodate them is being handled largely by SAP’s partner, Specialisterne, a for-profit Danish firm founded in 2004 by Thorkil Sonne. Sonne is the father of a boy who was diagnosed with autism only when he started kindergarten. “In kindergarten he was out of his comfort zone,” Sonne says, “and this is also the picture you can bring forward into the workforce.”

“To get the work relationship established, the customer should be able to describe and plan the task and make sure the work setting is comfortable. If it’s open office, it may need dividers, and if it’s noisy, the person may need headphones,” says Sonne. “Also, we teach the manager about setting expectations very clearly and not to use irony or sarcasm, because it can be hard to figure out that you are saying something while meaning the opposite. Most important is to reduce stress to the minimum.”

Sonne notes drily that these policies are generally welcomed by the nonautistic employees, too.

One obvious problem involves employment law: Employers can be wary of hiring autistic people because it can be difficult to fire them if things don’t work out. Sonne says that there are countervailing advantages and that lawmakers are aware of them. “Everywhere, municipalities are eager to work with us on these matters, helping us by explaining the circumstances, the incentives in the labor market for people like that, because every time they can take a person off government benefits and turn him into a taxpayer, it is a financial victory,” he says.

Peter Brabazon, head of Specialisterne’s program for Ireland, says his office in Dublin has assessed 11 candidates and found 3 that seem a good fit for SAP’s office there. “We hope for 5 by the end of the year, and 15 to 25—or 1 percent of SAP’s employment—in three to five years. My target is to place 500 in the next 10 years.”

The candidates will begin as contract workers for Specialisterne, then they’ll be assigned to SAP and to other tech companies that are showing interest, notably the Irish offices of Microsoft and Google. Later they may end up getting hired as full-timers by the corporate customer.

The problem that Specialisterne addresses is only growing, because the number of people diagnosed with autism has risen markedly in recent decades, for reasons as yet unclear. One theory, advanced by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, of the University of Cambridge, in England, is that people on the autistic spectrum are congregating in universities and jobs where it’s easier than ever before for like to marry like, thus producing more autistic children. Some evidence for this theory has been found: In high-tech centers such as Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, the incidence of autism in children is two to four times as great as in comparable Dutch cities that have less high-tech employment.

The results of such like-marrying-like—or “assortative mating”—are easier to see in the stature of Americans. According to a recent paper [PDF] by the economist Hays Golden, of the University of Chicago, the variability of height in the United States has risen by 10 percent over the past 50 years—precisely what you’d expect if the tall were increasingly marrying the tall and the short marrying the short. Today there are more very tall—and very short—people than ever before.

“If the variability for systemizing went up as much as that for height, that would be consistent with a doubling of the autistic population,” Golden says. “And I think you can say it went up even more—that in this case the mating pattern was even more assortative.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The world owes much to people on the autistic spectrum—among them, it has been speculated, Isaac Newton, the physicist Paul Dirac, and the mathematician Alan Turing. Golden, arguing on what he admits to be the narrow ground of mere economic productivity, thinks that if the incidence of autistic traits has indeed doubled, the gains to society would outbalance the losses. Reason: The increased variation in the traits would have boosted certain valuable abilities in some people and suppressed them in others, and the returns on the increased ability are very high at the upper end, where the Isaac Newtons of this world reside. He also thinks that there is a “branding” opportunity for any company that, like the fictional Capt. Kirk, can establish a reputation for hiring people who possess these traits.

“SAP’s strategy is to get out in front,” Golden says. “They’re framing themselves as a good place to be for such people.”

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