Autism Employer Summit Shares Ideas, Inspiration and Innovation

By: Taryn Oesch – 05/23/2018

Yesterday, I attended the Autism Employer Summit, hosted by the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. Speakers included Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., director of the center; Jewell Parkinson, head of human resources for SAP North America; José Velasco, vice president of product development and head of the Autism at Work program for the U.S. at SAP. There was also a panel discussion that included Parkinson and Velasco; Dr. Marlene Sotelo, director of programs and operations at ELS for Autism; Gregg Ireland, a board member at Extraordinary Ventures; and two (employed!) adults with autism – one a new graduate of the ClemsonLIFE program and one a mid-career professional with a Ph.D.

With such diversity of perspectives, I was bound to learn some valuable information, and I did! Here were my key takeaways:

1. The “skills shortage” is a myth.

According to Parkinson, the much-touted skills shortage doesn’t exist. Of course, it will seem to many employers that they can’t find the talent they need to fill important roles – but that’s because they are looking in a small pool of candidates. When we broaden our search for employees, we can find the skilled people we need.

2. Screen in, don’t screen out.

In order to actually hire those people, though, we need to change our approach to recruitment. Rather than screening out people based on somewhat arbitrary criteria like eye contact, we need to identify what we’re really looking for in a prospective employee (i.e., Can they develop software and work on a team?). One employee in the Autism at Work program told Velasco, “Do you want me to look you in the eye, or do you want us to have a meaningful conversation?” The answer is a no-brainer.

3. Support is critical.

SAP’s Autism at Work program includes “support circles” that includes mentors – someone outside of the individual’s department who volunteers to basically befriend them and help them learn the ropes. Other programs include a gaming club, which SAP started when they realized a lot of their employees on the spectrum enjoy gaming, and they wanted to provide a way for them to connect. Then, they found out a lot of employees not on the spectrum also enjoy gaming – further evidence, as Velasco says, that what’s good for employees with autism can also be good for the broader workforce.

4. The best way to understand yourself is to understand others.

This point came from panelist Jeff Day, a consultant with autism. He pointed out that just like learning a foreign language often makes us better understand our first language, understanding how other people think and work can help us understand how we think and work. Similarly, Velasco quoted Allen Kays, famous in the field of software development, who said, “A different perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” While people with autism may (or may not) also bring a lot of IQ points to the table, they also bring a diverse perspective that is invaluable, especially in today’s complex and changing business environment.

5. Young adults need early wins.

Panelists talked a lot about the support young adults especially need as they enter the workforce. Sotelo pointed out that as children and teenagers in public schools, individuals with autism typically receive a lot of support from educators, specialists and other professionals. They expect – and need – support at work, as well. Day also shared some early successes in his career that served as a springboard for his career development. As community leaders and employers, we need to make sure we’re supporting young adults – of any ability or disability – when they launch their careers.

The conference ended with a question from an audience member: How do hiring managers find candidates with autism? Here at The Power of the Dream, we have resources for you, including a jobs portal that’s in development to connect employers with skilled adults with autism and/or intellectual/developmental disabilities. Stay tuned…