Why Neurodiversity Makes a Big Difference to D&I

From left Sarah McDonough, Director of Atomic DNA, Brian Duffy, President EMEA North at SAP, Nick Rankin, Product Support Specialist with SAP, Kristen Doran, Senior HR Business Partner at SAP, Liam Ryan, Managing Director, SAP Ireland, Peter Brabazon, General Manager of Specialisterne Ireland and Adam Harris, CEO and Co-Founder of AsIAm.ie.

Diversity and inclusion are critical competitive success factors in today’s business landscape that, when executed correctly, can benefit not only the company and its employees but also society in general.

At Atomic DNA, we believe that an authentic diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy is a key component of any great employer brand and that it needs to be baked into an organisation’s DNA — not sitting in isolation as a stand-alone programme or, worse, just a box to be ticked.

What’s more, neurodiversity is an area that’s relatively untapped in terms of D&I agendas. Take adults with autism, for instance: a United Nations report estimates that more than 80% are unemployed, despite their potential to contribute significant value to the workplace.

This eye-opening statistic was just one of the motives behind SAP’s Autism at Work programme, which is shifting the dial on hiring, training and managing people on the autism spectrum. Last week, Atomic DNA had the honour of partnering with SAP on a special event in Dublin to showcase this programme.

Beyond the inspirational stories we heard from people on the spectrum — such as Adam Harris, founder of AsIam.ie, and Nick Rankin, the first person to be hired as part of Autism at Work — there was also plenty of practical advice that companies of any size could apply from SAP and their partner Specialisterne.

We’d like to share five of those insights with you:


1. You Don’t Need to Start With a Finalised Plan — Just Some Personal Motivation

Brian Duffy, President of EMEA North for SAP, noted that many people outside the company looking in believe that the Autism at Work programme began with an elaborate plan but that wasn’t the case at all.

In fact, as Brian himself stated, creating an inclusion and diversity plan for those on the autism spectrum was “started on the back of a napkin as we felt it was the right thing to do” because “a board member is close friends with [the golfer] Ernie Els. Els has a son on the autism spectrum and this member got to know him.”  

But while the programme’s origin and conception started out pretty simple, in just six years it has grown to include 160 people on the spectrum, including 10 people right here in Ireland. The panel agreed that the single most important thing was ensuring that such a programme was supported from the top down. In addition, as so many people have personal experience with neurodiversity, reaching out to the company at large to find those most likely to be advocates will greatly improve your own programme’s chance of success.


2. It’s Not Risky Business — It’s Better Business

During the discussion, members of both the panel and audience alike openly talked about the preconception that running a programme similar to SAP’s can incur risk — something that’s particularly concerning for those involved in HR. After all, they will be responsible if it doesn’t work out, right?

Kristen Doran, SAP’s senior HR business manager, had some practical advice on the matter: “As an HR manager, you are on the front line, taking on board all the risk. So we start out by seeking out the managers that this programme most touches and appeals to — it’s important to have buy-in from management — and then we start with 6-month contracts,” she said, adding, “The one message I would like for people to take away is that the obstacles to overcome, from my experience, are actually very small.”

In fact, the collective experience shared at our event was that taking action was not as time-consuming for those involved as they had previously thought and that it reaped genuine benefits for the customer that, in turn, can lead to business growth.

Brian commented: “What we have found as an organisation is not only is it the right thing to do for the individual but that what we thought was a gamble has actually come back to us multiple times in terms of driving benefit for our customers as well. The single best meeting I have had in my life was in March at SAP with some of our recent hires on the spectrum — this is because everyone was their authentic, honest self.”

Because those among us who are on the spectrum (an estimated one in 100) view the world differently, they naturally bring new insights and ways of problem-solving to a business as well as spot challenges that others might not — which, we all know, is key to growth.  


3. We Need to Identify But Not Label

Liam Ryan, Managing Director of SAP Ireland, said: “Some people have a preconception that while there are jobs that neurodiverse team members could excel at, they may be limited to certain roles and responsibilities. For example, jobs that involve observation and analysis of data, programming and tech may typically be considered suitable for someone on the spectrum, while jobs like customer service or team management may not.”


From left Kristen Doran, Senior HR Business Partner at SAP, Liam Ryan, Managing Director, SAP Ireland and Peter Brabazon, General Manager of Specialisterne Ireland.


That being said, though we may hold a very stereotypical and singular view of what someone on the spectrum is like based on extremes that we may personally be touched by or even from popular television shows such as “Big Bang Theory,” the reality is that neurodiverse people are just that — diverse. It’s natural to be biased based on limited exposure or information, but we need to be conscious of these and actively question them.

There’s a chance that you already work with someone on the spectrum in your workplace and aren’t even aware of it. Perhaps they themselves don’t even know it, as so many adults have never had the awareness or support to seek a diagnosis. Everybody is different, everybody is unique — we already know this in a general sense but it’s good to remind ourselves of that when it comes to people whose difference comes with an umbrella label.

Labels can be useful. They can help us express common experiences, but can also restrict us and create preconceived limitations of a person when it comes to gender, age, race, disabilities and how our brains are put together.   

Take Nick, for example, who graduated from DIT with an honours degree in computer science in 2011 and shared his experience at our event:

“I went job hunting [after graduating] and DIT was very supportive, but it obviously wasn’t happening. It was a bit disappointing,” he said, noting, “I was only diagnosed in 2007.  I had never heard of Aspergers until I was diagnosed. I got some work with UCD but it was only contract work and from home so didn’t really feel like work experience.”

Nick became the first employee hired as part of SAP’s Autism at Work programme in July of 2014 — and is now a product support expert. He’s now actively working on building his programming skills to support his learning and development in the hope of progressing into a development role in SAP. As evidenced by our event, Nick is an excellent speaker and communicator.

“HR should be aware that people on the autism spectrum do have differences but we can still get a job, get a mortgage and develop their career. I have a sensory need around clothing; this means I am most comfortable wearing tracksuits to work – my colleagues and peers in SAP understand this, and accept it, which means I can get on with just being me,” Nick added.

Brian adamantly agreed. “One of the concerns was about how people on the spectrum would interact with customers,” he shared. “It’s really blown me away. There has been absolutely no difference. People are face-to-face, visiting on site, public speaking, being promoted. I would say we are open to people on the spectrum, on all platforms now.”


4. The Help is Out There

Specialisterne is a global organisation that recruits and supports talented people on the autism spectrum, assessing their skills and challenges to match them with ideal jobs. According to Peter Brabazon, General Manager of Specialisterne Ireland, Ireland has been the organisation’s most successful and engaged platform to date.

When a company hires someone into the programme, Peter and his team will come to meet the relevant team. There is a 1-hour presentation about what to be aware of and any practical points of note, such as whether the particular person will avoid the canteen because they do not enjoy loud noise. This prevents any misunderstandings and keeps everything simple and straightforward.

“Specialisterne is now expanding greatly thanks to new funding,” Peter informed the audience. “We do the heavy lifting for the company by doing the initial assessment. We then talk to the company to find the roles that best fit. We are essentially a matching service. We can even be your recruitment service. What we do in that introductory hour is to give people an introduction and then the specifics for the individual.”

This is not just about the neurodiversity. We all need to speak up and be ourselves to make work a better place. Half of Peter’s own employees in this successful organisation are on the spectrum, so as a company that really knows what it’s talking about, Specialisterne can help your business too.

AsIAm.ie also provides great services. Atomic already had the pleasure of hearing founder Adam Harris’ story at Inspirefest and at our event, he went into more detail about what his organisation does.

“People need to move away from it being a CSR or a charity issue to a workplace issue,” Adam said. “We have become very aware of autism but we don’t necessarily understand it. We try to help businesses improve workplace culture and workplace environments by improving communication, predictability and judgement.”

For instance, one of the services that AsIAm.ie offers is programmes that allow employees to have a ‘walk in my shoes’ to experience to understand how sensory or communication issues can affect people with autism.


Adam Harris, CEO and Co-Founder of AsIAm.ie


5. Improve for One, Improve for All

One of the most important points made at the event came from a member of the audience, who reminded us that becoming spectrum-friendly in your recruitment process and work environment does not mean changing anything for the worse for the many, for the sake of the few: “It will do no harm. All the things that help autistic people are things that help us all. Clear communication, structure, acknowledgement of our individual needs — we all want that.”

So, embarking on inclusion and diversity programmes that come from a genuine place focused on allowing all authentic selves to flourish — for the better of the company — will reap great benefits for all.