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SAP’s Autism at Work and the importance of neurodiversity in New Zealand workplaces

It’s an unfortunate fact many neurodiverse people (who may or may not be on the autism spectrum) can have difficulty finding jobs that fit their skills. And while there are a number of initiatives to help fix this, the reality is it’s not enough.

But there are encouraging signs – not only in terms of new initiatives by large corporations that could have a trickle-down effect to other businesses and industries, but also thanks to technological advancements that help maximise people’s different skillsets. And some of that is happening right here in Aotearoa.

Enterprise application software company SAP has announced the New Zealand launch of Autism at Work, an initiative that helps people on the autism spectrum find qualified employment within the company. The announcement came at the HR Connect 2018 conference in Auckland, a conference where local and global experts in people and culture discuss how to connect people to purpose.

Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity and inclusion officer at SAP, says the initiative is important for both workers and businesses. “We are growing step-by-step,” she says. “We truly believe everybody brings strength to the table.”

New Zealand is the 11th country SAP has rolled the programme out in, according to Wittenberg. She adds the goal is to have 650 people worldwide helped by the programme by 2020 – but is even more encouraged by the potential of such initiatives to trickle-down to other companies and the rest of the industry.

That’s also something that has Dane Dougan, CEO of Autism New Zealand, encouraged. “The end goal is we have suitable employment,” he says. “A lot of our community do have the skills to be able to work.”

Wittenberg has more to say. “By embracing differences, we help spark innovation – while challenging assumptions and inspiring change,” she explains. “Those on the autism spectrum for example, add enormous value with their high-levels of attention to detail in software development and testing, and data analysis as well as other roles in our company such as customer support and marketing.”

Launched in 2013, the programme currently includes more than 120 people filling more than 22 different positions. Besides Aotearoa, it is active in ten countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Ireland and the United States.

SAP New Zealand will be supported locally by the DXC Dandelion Program, and for recruitment and onboarding by Life Without Barriers and JobLife Employment, a leading social enterprise working in more than 440 communities across Australia and New Zealand. “Through our partnership, we share information, delivery partners and research that helps improve and innovate our own programmes but also, together, helps promote these types of programs to other organisations globally,” says Michael Fieldhouse, DXC Dandelion programme executive.

Claire Robbs, Life Without Barriers chief executive, says something similar. “People with a disability who find sustainable employment benefit from greater independence, increased self-confidence and a number of other positive impacts such as improved overall well-being and social participation. This is a great opportunity to work with SAP and DXC Technology to help assist people on the autism spectrum to find employment opportunities within these organisations and beyond.”

Autism New Zealand’s Dougan also points out how technological developments are making it easier for businesses to employ a neurodiverse workforce. For example, he says, technology can enable communication, and allow employees to work remotely if need be.

SAP’s Wittenberg expands on that. “Technology enables people who are differently abled to participate in higher education and employment. It’s a great win-win situation.”

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