Sap Women

Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Stop Making Limiting Assumptions

Supriya Jha, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SAP, is a huge proponent of employing neurodivergent people at all levels of a company and urges us to expand our mindsets. Afterall, when we make assumptions about others, we not only limit our experience but also our own efficiencies

by Supriya Jha | 19 Jan, 2023
Supriya Jha, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SAP

What we say and how we say it matters. Outdated or insensitive word choices could reinforce negative connotations leading to discrimination. Whereas inclusive language can lead to a respectful environment. That is why terminology is so important, especially when we talk about neurodiversity.

To start, there are two definitions of autism, one from the World Health Organization (WHO) and one from the National Institute of Mental Health (US), similar but with a vital difference. The latter uses the word “disorder”, a term I feel is not suitable. Autism is not a “disorder” but rather an alternative and differentiated way of thinking, communicating, and socializing with people. All of us have different kinds of abilities, which is why we also can’t think of our employees as “normal” or “not normal”.

Autism is not a 'disorder' but rather an alternative and differentiated way of thinking, communicating, and socializing with people.

Over the years, we have progressed in the way we think about diversity and inclusion and the concept of neurodiversity. In the late 1990s, when sociologist Judy Singer first coined the term neurodiversity, the movement quickly gained support via online forums and new social networks. Today, alternative thinking styles have come to the fore and are becoming normalized. Companies tend to follow these societal norms. For instance, look at how deep the heightened focus on the Black population has grown since the killing of George Floyd. Sometimes it takes a nudge from society for a company to implement change.

While the neurodiversity movement has been brilliant in breaking down social barriers, challenging stigmas, and raising awareness, it also contains limitations, and these are becoming increasingly prominent as the movement expands into new domains. Unfortunately, the autistic community, part of the neurodivergent population, remains a largely untapped talent pool as the unemployment and underemployment rates run as high as 80%!

I have acutely noticed this trend when looking back at my work experience for Nasdaq, Mercer, and the Bank of America. While I have always been involved with diversity and inclusion, my personal experiences have been limited prior to coming to SAP, as I have never worked for a company that focused on neurodiversity. It has been a welcome change and has opened my eyes to the great intellectual capital that neurodivergent individuals can bring to the table.

My real aha-moment came soon after I joined SAP and was speaking at a town hall meeting. After the event, an employee came up to me on stage and said, “I want to introduce myself to you. I'm an opera singer and have sung in many of the sessions here. I'm also in the Autism at Work program.” The level of confidence she had blew me away, and it was my first interaction with somebody from our Autism at Work program. As I have gotten closer to her, I have found her to be an exceptional worker, and she is doing great work for the company.

The point is if you make assumptions about people, you not only limit your experience, but also your own efficiencies. For example, if I had a preconceived stereotype that people on the spectrum are a particular way, I might have hesitated to speak with her, unconsciously excluding her in the process. This fear comes with a cost, not just for the person, who will have limited progression opportunities, but also at a cost for me of missing out on meeting someone so exceptional.

Through unique perspectives and approaches, neurodivergent people can provide businesses with a competitive edge that brings measurable benefits, both financially and in terms of workplace culture.

There are also benefits of employing neurodivergent people for companies through innovation. Through unique perspectives and approaches, neurodivergent people can provide businesses with a competitive edge that brings measurable benefits, both financially and in terms of workplace culture. That was the main push when SAP started the Autism in Work Program (AaW) in 2013. When it first began, the focus was on roles in the tech space. However, we quickly learned that the skill sets and career interests are as unique as every individual. As a tech company, we will always have a large portion of our overall workforce in technical roles, and that is true for our AaW community, but we now have well over 200 AaW colleagues working across all board areas and in a wide range of departments.

We run the program in 17 countries including the Americas, Europe, Asia Pacific Japan, and Greater China. The program is based on a close companionship: Mentors, who engage the new AaW colleague socially and may facilitate connections across the location along with team buddies, who help guide individuals on the inner workings. We also have external job and life skill coaches, who help on work-related topics as well as personal topics that may be influencing work. Additionally, SAP launched its “Autism Inclusion Pledge” on November 2019 in New York City at the SAP CEO Summit, and we have close to 100 companies that signed up to this pledge. The goal is to share our knowledge and to champion autism inclusion in the workplace around the world.

I am often asked for recommendations when it comes to working with people on the spectrum. My key suggestions are:

  1. Don’t go into metaphors or generalities: Be accurate, precise, and slow down your communication. This advice is great both for neurotypical and neurodivergent audiences. It's often said in diversity and inclusion that what you do for a select few can help the rest of the population too. For example, when we try and help working mothers gain flexibility, other parts of the organization also profit and everyone’s mental health benefits. The same goes for slowing down our communications – making sure they are clear and concise will be more effective for everyone.
  2. Avoid making limiting assumptions: People may feel uncertain when interacting with people on the spectrum. They are afraid of making mistakes. Fear leads to prevention thus leading to exclusion. Instead, ask candid questions, and be sensitive. If you are coming from a place of good intention, it is well received when the person knows that you're respectful and making an effort.

We, as leaders and managers who have positions of power to impact the lives of others, should leverage that and really make the effort to understand what people are going through. Companies, now more than ever, have a responsibility to help lead the way for society in terms of moral values, objectives, and purpose.

While neurodiversity has grown in acceptance, I don't think anyone has really nailed it just yet. We are all trying to grow together. And that is why our next objective in this program is to inspire an increase in employment numbers across many companies but also to be champions for our colleagues as they progress in their careers.



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