Technology firms explore benefits hiring autistic workers

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V.R. Ferose, SAP senior vice president for globalization services, products and innovation (left), and Jose Velasco, head of the SAP Autism at Work program (right, speaking), at SAP's North American headquarters, Newtown Square, addressing a forum on people with autism in tech company jobs.

'Give me a broken system, and I see the problem really easily," says Mark Jessen, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based IT technology consultant for global business-software maker SAP, on a visit last week to the company's North America headquarters in Newtown Square.

Jessen is one of 100 people SAP has hired in its Autism at Work program since 2012. The first few hires were in India. SAP says it has developed supports to help autistic people cope with office demands they may find stressful, so they can apply their abilities to fixing software errors and other tasks.

Many autistic people cannot speak, let alone work as engineers. But some are high-functioning and sought out for their careful attention.

Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and more than a dozen additional tech firms sent people from their own autism programs to join a March 23-24 symposium at SAP attended by autistic workers and medical and corporate-recruiting professionals, to share progress and build what advocates call "neurodiversity" hiring.

"I have this really good whiteboard in my head," showing digital connections, sequential instructions, potential problems, and how to make them more efficient - as if in pictures, Jessen said.

He troubleshoots, pinpointing faster, more accurate data paths. Ask him to describe what he's doing, and he has to stop and translate the pictures to words.

Like some others diagnosed as "high-functioning autistic," Jessen professes a tough time answering open-ended questions, prioritizing tasks without guidance, making eye contact while conversing - "that shuts down how I process information" - or managing his thoughts in a loud crowd - "I hear everything," and it's tough to sort it all.

Self-taught, Jessen worked as an independent network engineer for 15 years until the business partner and protector who managed his clients died, around the same time he lost his parents, who were also gentle protectors.

The stress paralyzed Jessen; he recalls agonizing for hours over small decisions such as food choices. He lost the business and ended up in an Alameda County homeless shelter. To escape the "chaos," he sought peace in public libraries.

He read, and researched, and tutored adults. He met representatives from Silicon Valley autism-hiring programs, including SAP's Jose Velasco, who helped Jessen join up.

"This is a happy ending," Jessen concluded. "But there are a lot of people like me who are left behind. It's really important that we move this process forward."

A keynote speaker at the conference, John Elder Robison, is an autism celebrity, admired for his 1970s work building sound systems for Kiss, Pink Floyd and Atari gaming systems, his later work in bomb-proof electronics, and his 2007 bestseller, Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's, which helped Robison build his mature career as a scholar and policy advocate for the autism community. Read more at http://goo.gl/UoXHSI

Robison pretended to be a college graduate to get his first jobs in tech (he says engineering professors who knew his network-management skills gave references, though he had never taken classes). Robison was hired in 2013 as scholar-in-residence at the College of William and Mary to teach and study neurodiversity.

He says the spread of college education and professional qualifications over the past century has made it harder for people with varying conditions "on the autism spectrum" to land good jobs.

Autistic people "excel at learning by doing," Robison says. He flunked a junior high math class, but "I can hold in my mind the image of what wave forms are like in a nuclear blast, and model circuits in my mind that will suppress those electromagnetic waves in power lines, and the ways to build those. That's math that works."

The resurgence in self-education through digital courses has made life easier for some autistic people, but corporate hiring departments are still hard to penetrate. "The system locks people like me out," Robison says.

Like SAP's Velasco, Denmark-based IT executive Thorkil Sonne made autism career preparation a focus of his life's work after his son, Lars, now 19, was diagnosed at age 3.

Doctors called Lars' autism "a lifelong disability." They doubted he would fit in at school or work, "because he couldn't sell himself. I thought, maybe it's not Lars. Maybe we can change the labor markets."

Sonne's firm, Specialisterne, is dedicated to easing the hiring path for people like Lars. At SAP's invitation, Sonne moved his offices in Delaware, close to SAP and other employers, to help develop autism hiring support programs.

"It's important to us to bring in people whose brain is wired differently, who see things differently, to really help us be innovators," Anka Wittenberg, SAP's chief diversity and inclusion officer, told the crowd. "We are one of the leading tech companies in the world. We need to provide solutions."

JoeD@phillynews.com

(215)854-5194@PhillyJoeD

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NOTE: An earlier version of this story misidentified the SAP employees in the accompanying photo.

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