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Tech giants meet at SAP to boost autistic hires

"I have this really good whiteboard in my head"

"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 giant SAP, on a visit last week to its North America headquarters in Newtown Square.

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

Ask him to solve those problems, and he speedily executes familiar troubleshooting reviews, pinpointing faster, more accurate data paths. Ask him to describe what he's doing, and he has to stop and translate the pictures into 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 has to sort to make sense of it. Those qualities can make it tough to graduate from school, or to get hired in a traditional corporate office.

There are private work-arounds, personal accomodations, but those leave autistic people vulnerable. Self-taught, Jessen worked as an independent network engineer for 15 years -- until the business partner and protector who hired and managed his clients died, around the same time he lost his parents, gentle protectors.

The stress paralyzed Jessen; he remembers agonizing for hours over small decisions like 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. He met reps from Silicon Valley autism-hiring programs -- people concerned with "neurodiversity," using autistic people's special skills for better software -- inclduing SAP's Jose Velasco, who worked to place Jessen in  and support system so he could meet SAP business needs, paying his way and profiting the company.

"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."

He's one of 100 people with autism who SAP has hired in its Autism at Work program since 2012, after a pilot program at the company's India offices picked a small group of autistic professionals to help locate software errors and other systemic tasks.

Jessen visited Newtown Square last week to join a two-day symposium attended by autistic workers, medical, corporate-recruiting and academic professionals, and participants in similar programs at Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and more than a dozen other tech companies.

They heard from John Elder Robison, admired for his 1970s work building sound systems for Pink Floyd and Atari gaming systems, his later stint helping the government design bomb-proof electronics, and his 2007 book, Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger's, that helped build his mature career as a scholar and policy advocate for the autism community.

Robison pretended to be a college grad to get his first jobs in tech (he says engineering professors who knew the excellence of his network-management skills recommended him, though he'd never taken their classes.) Fearing detection, he says he quit a lucrative federal contract job "to fix cars in my driveway for the next several years" before going back to work as an IT contractor.

A descendant of prominent Virginians, Robison in 2013 was hired as scholar-in-residence at William and Mary College to teach and study neurodiversity. He has served on U.S. and U.N. boards focused on integrating people with autism.

He says the spread of college education and classroom-based professional qualifications over the past century has made it a lot harder for people with varying conditions "on the autism spectrum" to find meaningful employment.

Autistic people "excel at learning by doing," Robison says. He flunked a junior-high math course -- but "I can hold in my mind the image of what wave forms are like in the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast, and model cirtcuits in my mind that will suppress those waves in powerlines, and the ways to build those. That's math that works," he told the crowd.

The resurgence in self-education via digital courses has made life easier for some autistic people, but corporate hiring departments are still hard to penetrate. "I teach at a college that would not have admitted me as a student," Robison concluded. "I have done (high-level contract work) for companies that would not employ people like me. The system locks people like me out." Changing corporate employment tactics is key, he said.

Like SAP's Velasco and others with key roles making corporate space for autistic professionals, Denmark-based IT executive Thorkil Sonne made that focus his life's work after his son, Lars, now 19, was diagnosed at age 3. "He was very smart, trustworthy, caring. But in kindergarten they saw a child who was looking for the quiet corners, and for the swing in the garden. There's not much room for kids like that in kindergarten," Sonne recalled. "The high activity level, it feels like a war zone for the poor child."

Doctors called Lars' autism "a lifelong disability. As parents, we had to change our plans for our family. He would be bullied at school. He probably couldn't get a job because he coudln't sell himself."

That wasn't good enough for the Sonnes. "I thought, maybe it's not Lars. Maybe we can change the labor markets." Sonne founded Specialisterne, a company dedicated to easing the hiring path for people like Lars. At SAP's invitation Sonne moved to offices in Delaware, close to SAP and other big employers, to help the company develop its autism program.

"It's important to us to bring in people whose brain is wired differently, who see things diffrently, 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."