In 2011, the Autism Society of India asked SAP for help. The charity wanted educational software for children on the autism spectrum. Could SAP's programmers build it? The request led to Project Prayas--Hindi for "effort"--which produced a suite of applications for Android and iPad that boost the kids' communication skills. (Some resources are also available online at Learn4Autism.com.)

Unexpectedly, the effort did not end there. None of the SAP team members had personal experience with autism. As they continued their volunteer work, they began to learn more about the disorder and ask what would happen to those kids when they grew up. "We realized there is a tremendous value there in terms of the work discipline and output they can give," says Sridhar Sundaram, an SAP employee who helped lead Project Prayas. "We started with the process of trying to leverage the unique skills of people with autism for software testing. All of us have some value that we bring to work, and they too have unique value." What began as a response to a request for help for autistic kids led to a novel initiative to hire adults on the spectrum.

An Ambitious Goal

It took some trial and error--"we had to iterate on the kind of work they could do," Sundaram says--but eventually it was decided that, for the first five-person batch of trainees, hired just over two years ago, browser testing was most suitable. The in-office support system also grew in an ad-hoc manner, with the parents of new team members accompanying them to work, helping them settle, and then gradually letting them go. "They had a lot of knowledge... What would encourage them? What would positively reinforce them?" Sundaram says. "Today, all of them are independent--they take public transport or company transport."

Word of the India effort spread, and in March 2013, the company announced that, by 2020, it hoped to have 1 percent of its overall workforce--just under 700 people, if employment numbers remain at current levels--coming from the autism spectrum. It's not a purely altruistic effort. "There is a skill set people on the spectrum are bringing that has business value," says Jose Velasco, an SAP executive and father of two autistic children who leads the Autism at Work program. He points, too, to turnover. "Industry papers tell you that in complex functions, it will take six to 12 months of salary to replace the level of productivity that the person left behind. That we are providing an employment opportunity for someone with a tremendous eagerness to get a job will probably help us with retention, a pervasive problem in software and IT."

How It Works

Last fall, I visited SAP's Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, campus, where five Autism at Work employees were hired in the spring of 2014. Velasco explained how the company reexamined the entire employee experience, starting with hiring. Instead of traditional interviews, SAP held Lego-centric "hangout days." Candidates were put in groups of eight and given Lego Mindstorm robotics kits. "We gave them instructions: After you finish Robot 1, please build Robot 2. If you have free time, surprise us with something nice and creative," he says. The goal: to gauge several skills, including "the ability to read instructions and execute instructions. If the instructions are incorrect, do they go up and ask for help? Do they help colleagues?" Throughout the day, as participants adjusted to the new setting, they were pulled aside individually for very brief, very casual conversations.

Successful candidates then progressed to a four-week course. The first week focused on developing individual comfort with the corporate setting, from using badges to get through security to navigating the cafeteria. The second week shifted focus to SAP's team-based culture, introducing standard methodologies, work practices, and potential managers. ("Nothing like interviews," Velasco says. "Just coming in for lunch. Saying hi.") The third week dove into SAP's broader business, with presentations on the company's global reach and product lines. The final week featured more intense interactions with managers, "continuing to build trust" and examining specific roles, Velasco says. Only then did formal hiring happen. "Transitions from Point A to Point B--junior high to high school, high school to college, college to professional life--are always difficult. So we try to soften the transitions."

The potential participants weren't the only ones receiving training--their colleagues did too. Low-contact employees (say, consultants who aren't regularly in the office and whose "chance of contact was not high") were invited to join voluntary, 90-minute conference calls that provided background on the program as well as information on myths and stereotypes about autism. Medium-contact staff--security guards, receptionists, cafeteria workers--participated in a half-day seminar. High-contact employees--the new recruits' managers and team members--did the seminar and also got one-on-one instruction.

One important step SAP took was to form a multifaceted support team around each new autistic staff member. There is, of course, the person's manager. But there's also a manager's rep deputized to step in if the manager happens to be out. There's a specially trained member of the human-resources team. There's a state-paid, onsite job coach. And there's the Autism at Work mentor--an employee who has volunteered to be an in-office buddy.

The model and structure incorporate planned evolution. For instance, the company hopes that the role of job coach will be transitional. It's meant to ease the adjustment for both manager and new employee. "The idea," Velasco says, "is that the job-coach role diminishes over time, to the point where we do not need a coach anymore."

Tom Monte, who manages an Autism at Work participant, says that the program has been "really good for business. A lot of times you get stuck in your ways of thinking," he says. "He uncovers things that we might overlook. He'll ask questions, and I think, 'Why aren't my senior guys asking these questions?'"

Stereotypes and Surprises

One surprise is how the employees have grown beyond the company's expectations--and, yes, even their stereotypes. "The mindset was that we would hire software testers," says Jose Velasco, "but we're finding all kinds of skills in all kinds of disciplines. New hires have become business analysts, developers, and even project managers--a role that was thought to be too communication-dependent. One person began in a more tech-oriented role, then networked her way into a graphic-design position.

The stereotypes do not surprise Charles Hollenden, an Autism at Work employee. While he acknowledges the truth of some of them--when he arrived at SAP, he says, "I wasn't sure how to talk to different people. It was a struggle"-- he also hopes for a more nuanced view: "People hear ‘autism,' and they think repetitive tasks. But I have the skills to run your IT department." He mentions the acronyms that dominate SAP jargon: "There are millions of them!" Learning them " was part of the challenge. You do have to do homework." So let's ask this: How much of that is autism--and how much is just learning a new job and a new corporate culture?

SAP employee Peggy Monaghan, who has two nephews on the spectrum and volunteers as a mentor in the program, says it's been humbling to see how her new colleagues compel people to look anew not only at their work but also at each other: "It's a different eye." Which is no bad thing for all of us--myself included. One great danger of reporting is to enter interviews with strong ideas about what you'll get. I confess I arrived in Newtown Square with my own stereotypes and expectations of what I'd encounter--for instance, a pretty dry, emotion-free experience.

Then I met Patrick Viesti, a heart-on-sleeve guy who studied communications in college and whose blossoming career at SAP has even sent him on business trips to California. "It's helped me to grow more as a person, being able to step outside my comfort zone and take a few more risks," he says. He has had deeply personal motivations--which, unexpectedly, he decided to share with me. "Back in 2012, my father, who works as a Local 690 plumber, contracted Stage 4 throat cancer. There is no Stage 5--Stage 5 is a pine box," he said. He committed to his dad at that point that he would do "whatever is in my power to help you get better." "That's why I work so hard," he said. "It's for my family."

When I asked Viesti what advice he might have for folks who are not on the spectrum as they consider the issue of autism employment, he gave me a straightforward answer. "We're just like everyone else. We may think a little different," he said. "But I feel just like you." He didn't intend it as a rebuke, I don't think, but I took it as one--gratefully. And I thought of that lovely Walt Whitman line about human complexity: "I contain multitudes." Indeed, we all do--and the important reminder Patrick Viesti offered me? Never underestimate another person. To do so is to flatten those multitudes, and to erase a bit of his humanity.