What is autism?

Autism, including its milder form Asperger Syndrome, is a neurological condition that affects approx. 1% of the population (1). It is more common in males than females: some studies suggests that approx. four in five people with autism are male (2). Although the cause of autism is still unclear, research suggests that a combination of factors - genetic and environmental - may contribute to changes in brain development resulting in the characteristics of autism. These characteristics are expressed in each individual in differing ways and to varying degrees.  As a result, the condition is thought of today as a spectrum condition, with each individual having differing and very specific abilities and needs. 

In general, autistic individuals have a different way of processing information than other people. As a result, autistics interact with other people differently. The characteristics of autism fall into two main categories: 

  • Social communication and social interaction
  • Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour 

Whereas most neurotypical people enjoy interacting with others and having a broad range of interests, autistics tend to enjoy dealing with information and facts and have very specific interests.  They may also be hyper (over) or hypo (under) sensitive to certain sensory stimuli and have poor motor skills.  Due to their difference, they may feel misunderstood and isolated, overwhelmed by sensations and situations, and not accepted for who they are.

Autistic individuals can have skills and abilities in specific areas which can be quite remarkable, such as:

  • Unique/innovative way of thinking
  • Extensive knowledge in a particular field
  • High concentration levels/hyperfocus 
  • Preference for routine or structured processes
  • Perfectionism/eye for detail
  • Logical way of thinking/objectivity
  • Concientiousness/reliability
  • Loyalty/sense of justice
  • Openness/honesty

Autistic individuals may experience difficulties in the following areas: 

  • Flexibility/understanding the thoughts and feelings of others
  • Interpreting non-verbal communication or vague/ambiguous speech
  • Visualizing novel situations/seeing the big picture
  • Socialising/small talk
  • Asking for help/communicating in larger groups
  • Adapting to new situations
  • Managing time/setting priorities
  • Multitasking

Many of the characteristics of autism diminish by adulthood as the person develops coping mechanisms and some characteristics may not be easily noticeable, in particular in women. Nevertheless, in today's work environment, where stringent deadlines, fast-changing priorities and job insecurity are the norm, additional factors such as difficulty communicating, social awkwardness, rigid ways of thinking and sensory issues may augment any feelings of stress the person may already be experiencing, leading to anxiety. If anxiety levels become too high, the person may suffer a type of meltdown - a feeling of loss of control in which they may become overly critical, loud or, in some cases, aggressive.  

If a company is aware of the special needs of an employee and is prepared to provide the right kind of support, this can help autistics not only to cope with the challenges involved, but also to be highly successful in a professional environment.  In turn, the employer can profit from the unique skills and abilities autistic employees bring to the workplace. 

Autistic employees can be 'good business' for an organisation

As more becomes known about autism and the particular skills and abilities that autistic employees can bring with them, organisations are coming to appreciate how valuable autistics can be to an organisation. Microsoft is currently running a pilot program to hire autistic employees at its Redmond Campus (3), and SAP's Autism at Work program has been running since 2013. 


Find out about SAP's Autism at Work Program