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How LeBow Students Helped SAP Hire Employees on the Autism Spectrum

Exterior of Gerri C. LeBow Hall

April 30, 2014

One day in India, an employee of the software corporation SAP hopped aboard a company transit vehicle to ride from one building to another. He expected to take the route he’d taken before. But the driver went a different way.

The driver’s route might not normally be a cause for alarm. But this SAP employee had autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Like many others on the autism spectrum, the employee struggled to adjust to changes in routine. The result was a burst of anxiety.

For leaders at SAP’s U.S. headquarters near Philadelphia, this anecdote served as a valuable lesson — one unearthed by student-consultants from Drexel.

The company is in the midst of a pilot program to hire employees who have ASD, which is part of a worldwide initiative to hire more than 600 workers with ASD by 2020.  Helping the company toward that goal during the winter term was a class of Drexel students, enlisted to contribute to a smooth implementation including sharing information such as that anecdote.

The 17 students in the LeBow College of Business online Master of Business Administration program served as consultants to SAP’s Autism at Work initiative in the United States.

The students, located as far away as Qatar, had to deliver information and guidelines that SAP could use, and fast. The company was set to begin hiring its first U.S. workers under the program in the spring, which did not leave much time for the students in the winter-term course.

“When you look at what we put in front of them, it’s not an easy task,” said Jose Velasco, head of the U.S. Autism at Work initiative. “We all felt like we were changing the tires at 100 miles per hour.”

It was a tough job, but it presented those students with a unique opportunity: Get some real-world consulting experience, while doing some serious good for the world.

“This is by far the most comprehensive and challenging project that we’ve undertaken in many years,” said Dana D’Angelo, a clinical professor and one of the students’ instructors. “And not in a bad way.”

D’Angelo, a former consultant herself, has taught consulting courses to LeBow MBA students for about 20 years, though this is only the second such course for online students. For the past 10 years, students in the courses have increasingly worked with large corporations.

SAP was a natural fit to be a client — its U.S. headquarters in Newtown Square is home to a number of Drexel alumni. Alumni Greg Canose (’87) and Richard D. Blumberg (’84) teamed up with Velasco to bring Drexel on board.

When the company brought Autism at Work forward as a subject for consulting services, D’Angelo was thrilled. Drexel, home of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, was already a hotbed of autism-related research. And the project presented an unusual chance to tackle a social issue and a business objective at the same time.

“We thought it would be a great match all-around,” D’Angelo said.

SAP wants to hire workers with ASD not just because it would help a population with high unemployment and underemployment, but also because its leaders believe it will be good for the company, Velasco said. He said workers with ASD could be good fits for jobs in areas ranging from software development to finance to support.

“We firmly believe that people affected by autism bring very valuable skills to the table,” Velasco said.

That’s true, said Chris Lindberg, a LeBow alumnus and the father of a 14-year-old son with ASD. Lindberg talked with students in the course as they researched ASD early on in their process. People on the autism spectrum, he said, are often quite capable workers.

The first step for the students in the LeBow course was to learn the realities of the autism spectrum, D’Angelo said, moving past “Rain Man” stereotypes to appreciate ASD’s multifaceted and varied nature.

Sean Papso, a student in the course, said that’s what he had to do. He’d had little exposure to autism before, and in his imagination the term meant a debilitating disorder that left people unable to communicate or participate much in society. But through research and interviews with Lindberg, Drexel Autism Institute researchers and others, he learned that people with ASD have a great deal of promise in the workplace. And he learned that the challenges they face can be overcome with the help of their coworkers.

“There is no answer to dealing with every autistic individual,” Papso said. “Everybody is different.”

The students’ task was twofold: to help SAP workplaces prepare for the arrival of employees with ASD, and to estimate the costs of the program and investigate possible funding options.

“A key part of this for us is to educate people,” Velasco said. “What are some of the traits, the skills and the gifts that people affected by autism bring to the table, as well as some of the challenges they may face?”

The students learned that one thing many people with ASD have in common is that they struggle with unexpected changes to their regular routine. But there can be no comprehensive set of rules. Each person with ASD is different, Lindberg said: One person might experience severe anxiety if a fire alarm goes off, and another might feel at home acting as the office fire marshal and leading coworkers down the stairs.

“They really have to be adaptable to the fact that every person will be different,” Lindberg said. “You just have to know that person won’t react the same way that you and I will.”

To give employees without ASD (known as neurotypical employees) an idea of how to help their future co-workers, the students developed use cases — three-page descriptions of possible situations and how they might be handled. One was based on the story of the employee in India whose transport took the unexpected route. (Students learned about it by interviewing an SAP manager in India.)

“The students have shown an enormous amount of empathy,” Velasco said. “They put in an enormous amount of time to get educated and to learn.”

The students assembled materials to help train all employees who might interact with a new colleague with ASD, from a cafeteria worker who may serve him food to the manager who will supervise him.

Velasco said the materials and information he’d seen had proved immediately useful.

For the students in the class, the project has provided invaluable experience, Papso said. And though it’s taken a great deal of elbow grease, juggled alongside full-time jobs, the thought of what they’re working toward made it easy to keep going, he said.

“To know that we can help people overcome their challenges and gain meaningful employment — it means the world,” Papso said.

For more information about LeBow College of Business consulting projects, visit lebow.drexel.edu/consulting.