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Breakthrough for Workers with Autism


by Will Rapp

Last month’s business news out of Germany contained promising news on the employment front: SAP Looks to Recruit People with Autism. Following a successful pilot program, SAP AG announced it will step up its hiring of people with autism. It is well known that those on the autistic spectrum often display highly focused and analytical traits. The fact that SAP has taken this step, and is the first major multinational company to move in this direction, is ground-breaking. SAP is the world leader in enterprise software and related services and has a 40-year history of innovation across more than 130 countries.

SAP will hire hundreds of autistic staff around the world to work in fields such as software testing, programming and data quality assurance. Because autism tends to come with impaired social nuances, it will take special knowledge and sensitivity to maximize the working relationship. SAP is committed to make this investment.

Kolbe Corp has had its own experience with employing autistic programmers. In July 2008, we hired a young Taiwanese-born man as a part-time software tester (the very same kind of job SAP will initially employ its autistic workers in). Working at Kolbe Corp, Yeou-Luen Ni was exposed to the rigors of normal employment. He had excelled in academic studies, had a proven level of high intelligence, and his M.O. was a great fit, but he lacked any practical work experience. Quoting from a Chinese proverb he told SARRC* “Failure is the mother of success,” adding in his own words, “so I won’t give up on my ideal of a stable job.”

Yeou-Luen started with a regular job interview with Kathy Kolbe, just like anyone else, except that he was accompanied by job coach Erin Onaki, Employment Coordinator from the Vocational & Life Skills Academy, where he was being tutored. Onaki later described the interview as a real opportunity for him, “It was really a genuine interview. She didn’t give him any slack.”  Kathy Kolbe’s retort to that was, “It had to be a bona-fide, real-world experience if he was going to fit into the working environment.”

Once hired, Yeou-Luen reported directly to Technology Vice President, James Trujillo, but interfaced with all members of the Tech Team. Trujillo told SARRC, “He fit right into our team. We needed sequential thinkers,” and that played perfectly into Yeou-Luen’s skill set. Onaki worked on-site with him when he first got the job, but quickly scaled down her visits because he was doing so well. A gregarious young man, he dropped by coworkers’ desks to give them periodic progress reports on what he was doing and pulled us all into his social circle. You can read his full story in the Spring, 2009 volume of SARRC Outreach. As the months went by and his skills improved, we all knew that it was time for him to graduate to a full-time job elsewhere, and we were sad when that day finally came.

Yeou-Luen has stayed in touch with his friends at Kolbe Corp and we were overjoyed to hear of his marriage last October. When you understand that approximately 70% of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder are unemployed and underemployed and that less than 1% of them ever marry, you can understand what a special situation we had in this young man and what joy he brought to all of us.

*SARRC is the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center 

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