Designation: Managing Director, SAP Labs India
The Problem: People with disabilities such as autism are usually dependent on others throughout their lives. They lack communication skills, are not social, and businesses generally don’t employ them.
The Solution: Inspired by a Danish entrepreneur, he saw that they had amazing memory and can repeat tasks over and over again—skills that can be used in complex product testing. The best of them is as good as three engineers, he says.
Two years ago, I met Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow, and an outstanding individual. I invited him to come and speak at SAP Labs. His story was very moving. He was the head of an IT company. His son was diagnosed with autism and, for years, he was struggling with a thought that keeps parents of special children awake at night: What happens after I am gone?
For children with physical disabilities, things get better over a period of time. You lose a limb, you can get it back. Or, you get used to it, find employment and lead an independent life. But children with intellectual inability are always dependent on somebody. Getting a job is the bottom line, but autistics find that difficult. They have two challenges: They are non-social and can’t communicate. If you go for an interview and say you can’t communicate or work in a team, you won’t get the job even if you’re the smartest person in the world. In any interview, the focus is on rejecting people and not selecting them. We might not realise this, but that’s what we do. Because of his personal situation, Thorkil wondered: Will my son ever get a job?
His son was diagnosed with autism when he was three years of age, but it was only when he turned nine, that Thorkil got an important insight. He said that instead of focusing on what he can’t do, let me focus on what he can.
Autistics have amazing skills—not all, but many of them do. Some have a great ear for music. Some have an outstanding memory: As they see the world in pictures, their memory is photographic. And most of them have an ability to do the same tasks repeatedly. Thorkil asked himself, how can I use these skills in the world of technology? As he came from that background, he found a sweet spot there. He said, “Can I use them for doing testing because testing involves repeated tasks? Can I use them to build specific software where you need a lot of memory?” He tried their skills; he used them for building gaming software and for testing purposes. And it worked.
Today, he runs a company called Specialisterne, 80 percent of whose employees are autistic.
When Thorkil came to SAP Labs, his mission was to create a million jobs for autistics. He told me, “Ferose, if I have to create a million jobs, it has to happen in India. Only India has that kind of scale, and a lot of special children.” Personally, I thought it was an outstanding idea, but taking the first step is always a challenge. It’s very difficult to convince people. Integration is tough. The ramp up time is very high. We hired four autistics and three of them are with us now. I can say the best among them is as good as three engineers.
How do we scale it up? There are three aspects to it. The first is to spread awareness. We’re way behind Western countries in detecting the problem. India says one out of every 150 children born is autistic; US says one out of 70. Second is how can we help teach autistics. We have millions of differently-abled children. But special schools cannot scale up, because they need one-to-one teaching methods. If we have 100 autistic students, we need 100 special teachers. That’s not scalable. I personally see technology as the only way out. It may not solve it, but will surely help. The third is about inclusion. How does one make businesses hire special people, not as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative, but because it makes business sense. Only then will it be sustainable. Today, if I can tell you that one [autistic worker] is as good as three engineers, it’s because it makes business sense.
At SAP, we have done different things to address this. We started an iPad Lab as a part of Project Prayas. When Steve Jobs launched iPad 2, he spent nearly 10 minutes talking about how iPads can be used to teach autistic children. We donated a few iPads, but once we ventured into it we realised there was so much more to be done: How do you build a curriculum? What are the kind of applications they need to help them work? All the apps that we’ve had were very US-centric; they were created for US children. So we started building our own apps for Indian children. I think a bigger challenge is to make them employable. To do this though, you have to think out of the box, because most of them wouldn’t have studied beyond the 12th standard. The way you hire them is completely different.
Early last year, some of our employees started working with the Autism Society of India to choose candidates with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) whom we could prepare for employment. This was an unknown area. We picked three-four potential candidates who were in the middle-to-high range of ASD. We also considered their proficiency in the use of computers and their ability to work in an office-like environment along with a large number of people. Since we had not done this before, we could not fall back on a defined process and therefore went by the clarity of intent. We placed them in complex product testing. You might ask, do they understand SAP? But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have a photographic memory. We tell them about the 50 steps to testing; how to set up a system, which 20 parameters to check; how the data flow is, how it moves and what the outcome should be. For a regular engineer, he has to write the process down, he has to see it very often and if he misses one step, the entire thing is gone. But autistics can do it easily for 100 such scenarios. Thorkil tested them against regular engineers and found that the regular engineers were right on 80 percent of the occasions, while those with autism were right every time.
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(This story appears in the 26 October, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)