Cintas' life changed in March when he was hired at SAP's Palo Alto office, along with six other employees, as part of the German software company's groundbreaking Autism at Work program. Developed with Danish company Specialisterne, a pilot project proved successful in India, so SAP brought it to the United States, first to Silicon Valley and later to Pennsylvania, and Germany, Canada and next year, Brazil. So far, 42 employees with autism have been hired at eight SAP locations around the world.
While company programs for hiring autistic employees are nothing new, they've usually involved low-wage, simple tasks. SAP is among the first to embrace the idea that some of those with autism can excel in skilled positions.
Initially limited to software testing, the program quickly spread to other areas, including software development, customer support and graphic design. Impressed with the early success, SAP is planning to bring the program to its other Bay Area offices in Dublin, South San Francisco and possibly Sunnyvale.
While SAP is by far the largest company to push for hiring autistic employees, it isn't the first. For more than 25 years, Livermore's Ratermann Manufacturing has had a work site at the Morgan Autism Center in San Jose where about a dozen autistic men and women are paid minimum wage to assemble parts for use with compressed gas tanks. Ratermann provides supplies and faxes orders; the crew fills them and ships them out.
Drugstore chain Walgreens also has an initiative for hiring autistic workers at its distribution centers and is in the process of expanding it to its retail stores. With SAP paving the way, autism advocates hope more opportunities are on the horizon.