Playing to Autism's Strengths

Marcus Buckingham has long been an advocate for focusing development activities on building strengths rather than fixing weaknesses. The Wall Street Journal article How Autism Can Help You Land a Job highlights how companies like SAP and Freddie Mac are taking Buckingham's philosophy to the next level.

SAP aims to have up to 1% of its workforce—about 650 people—be employees with autism by 2020, according to Jose Velasco, head of the autism initiative at SAP in the U.S.

People with autism spectrum disorder—characterized by social deficits and repetitive behavior—tend to pay great attention to detail, which may make them well suited as software testers or debuggers, according to Mr. Velasco, who has two children with the condition.

I love the reverse engineering approach that company leaders have taken by saying what strengths do candidates with autism bring and where would those be a benefit to us.

"They have a very structured nature" and like nonambiguous, precise outcomes, Mr. Velasco said. "We're looking at those strengths and looking at where those traits would be of value to the organization."

Autistic employees at SAP take on roles such as identifying software problems, and assigning customer-service queries to members of the team for troubleshooting.

As someone who generally deals with ambiguity fairly well, I sometimes get frustrated by colleagues who ask exacting detail questions to more clearly define project parameters and expectations. I've found it helpful in these exchanges to assume (right or wrong) that the person on the other end of the conversation falls on the mild side of the autism spectrum. That framework helps me deal with those situations more productively, by realizing their internal structure is different than mine.

I admire the way these two companies approach orientation with mentoring and employee-adaption training. The corporate environment is one giant hairball of bureaucracy and ambiguity. Recognizing how uncomfortable that can be for people who prefer order over disorder and helping bridge that gap will be critical to the success of these initiatives. I couldn't agree more with Freddie Mac's policy: "Harnessing the unique skills of people on the autism spectrum has the potential to strengthen our business and make us more competitive."