Technology firms explore benefits hiring autistic workers

‘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.”

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