Autism in the Workplace

Rebecca Sufrin

Writing Intern

An unlikely partnership between large companies and people with autism has been receiving positive attention recently. Two major companies, SAP AG, a multinational software company, and the home financing firm Freddie Mac, have been specifically seeking autistic people to become part of their businesses.

Autism is an extremely complex neurological disorder that varies individually. Autistic disorders, as defined by the organization Autism Speaks, “are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.” Other characteristics include “intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues.”

Despite these oftentimes inhibiting factors, people with autism are just as able to thrive in many settings, when given the chance. Kate Kelland, a Health and Science Correspondent for Reuters, writes that SAP is recruiting people with autism to be software testers and Freddie Mac has created paid internship opportunities that are focused specifically towards autistic students.

Here in Pittsburgh, there are efforts to support autistic and other youths with special needs both inside and outside of the workplace. The Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh, founded in the Jewish community in 2006, is an organization, “dedicated to helping children and young adults with special needs to become more fully integrated into the broader community.” The program fosters the development of people with special needs by pairing them with friends who assist with various social activities.

Lianne Sufrin, a volunteer for the Friendship Circle, says it’s uplifting to see programs, organizations, and even large corporations offer both support and honest opportunities to people with special needs.

“It’s really inspiring to see the workplace slowly becoming a bit more equalized,” she says. “At the Friendship Circle,” she continues, “the staff specifically encourages participants with disabilities to take leadership roles in programming.”

Experiencing any type of leadership, especially earlier in life, can help ready those with special needs for the workplace so they can demonstrate how possible it is for them to flourish in the professional world.

Both SAP and Freddie Mac believe they will benefit from having autistic people be a part of their businesses. The companies’ motives are questioned by author Joshua Kendall, who Kelland quotes in her article as saying, “These big companies aren’t doing it out of the kindness of their heart; they are doing it because they now realize they’ve been missing something.” Furthermore, Kendall wonders if society will aim to accommodate autistic people in the workplace or “seek to cure them of their disorder.”

In order for businesses to successfully incorporate autistic and other people with developmental disorders into their workplaces, their objectives and intentions for hiring must be completely non-exploitative. Still, it is fair for employers to specifically seek autistic people as they offer unique input and perspectives.

And while there are always risks of office place ridicule, it is important to note that the Americans with Disabilities Act allows those who are ridiculed to press charges for harassment or even file a lawsuit against a persecutor. It seems that more and more businesses as well as autistic people are willing to take those risks in order to break conventionally set boundaries and negative assumptions held about autism in the workplace.


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