The Diverse Minds charity gala: helping promote workplace neurodiversity to the top of the agenda

The Diverse Minds charity gala
Meeting of minds: the audience gathers for the Diverse Minds charity gala in London

Thanks to initiatives such as the recent Diverse Minds charity gala, there is now much greater awareness about the need for neurodiversity in the workplace

The competitiveness of business today means looking everywhere for the talented people needed to give companies an edge over the competition.

For those scouring the market, it means looking not only for people of different ages and backgrounds but also neurodiversity.

It is well known that diverse organisations tend to produce more innovative approaches – something put down to having more people that think differently working together.

Neurodiversity is the recognition that some employees, particularly those on the autism spectrum, think in a fundamentally different way to many of their colleagues, and that such a skill can actually be harmonious with a normal working life or even beneficial.

What autistic people bring is their true authentic self to the workplace, which can only be a good thing

Statistics from the National Autistic Society show that autistic people, with a lifelong condition that affects how they communicate and interact with the world, are particularly underrepresented in the workforce.

Its survey of more than 2,000 people with autism revealed that only 16pc are in full-time paid work. Furthermore, less than a third (32pc) are in either paid full-time or part-time work, compared with 47pc of disabled and 80pc of non-disabled people.

One company that is trying to tackle the autism employment gap is the technology company SAP. It started its Autism at Work programme in 2010, which so far has recruited 160 autistic employees globally.

It also recently held its first Diverse Minds gala in London to raise awareness and funding for autism charities, including Ambitious about Autism and the National Autistic Society.

As well as showcasing the musical talent of 10-year-old American Sami Gershenhorn, who has autism, the event at Old Billingsgate featured a keynote speech from Anne Hegerty who stars in TV gameshow The Chase and who has Asperger’s syndrome. “I’m not ashamed to be autistic. It’s an integral part of what makes me a great quizzer,” she said.

Before the gala, Brian Duffy, president Northern Europe for SAP, said the company started the initiative because “we thought it was the right thing to do… What autistic people bring is their true authentic self to the workplace, which can only be a good thing.”

José Velasco, who leads SAP’s Autism at Work in the Americas, and who has an autistic child, told guests how the programme brings “dignity of employment” to those with autism.

However, the initiative does not only benefit employees who find paid work and achieve financial independence from their parents. It also benefits the companies. Mr Duffy said: “Hiring people who are on the spectrum has allowed us to excel in our business.

“They bring their own opinions and are extremely intelligent which is very helpful in the industry which we are in. For a business that’s 45 years old, diversity can only be a good thing.”

Danae Leaman-Hill, director of fundraising for Ambitious about Autism, which is working with SAP to get more autistic people in the workplace through its Autism Exchange programme, agreed. “Those with autism have so much to offer. They think differently, are loyal, hyperfocused – and any adjustments that need to be made for them are minimal.”

While many of the roles at SAP for autistic people are in engineering or in research and development, some are working in areas such as customer support, design and HR with a 50-50 split between men and women.

In Ireland, where SAP employs 3,500 people, its Autism at Work initiative is already well established, whereas in the UK it is just being rolled out with two autistic employees having been recruited so far.

SAP is not the only company to have realised the benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace. Microsoft has a similar programme that has benefited its business, while Ambitious about Autism has partnered with the Civil Service, Public Health England and TalkTalk to find placements for autistic people.

“We all need to think about how best to maximise talent through inclusion,” concluded Mr Duffy. “We need events like our Diverse Minds charity gala to kick-start a movement to champion neurodiversity in the workplace.”

Celebrating neurodiverse workplaces

World Autism Awareness Week is from 1 to 7 April 2019.

As part of this year’s activity, Telegraph Spark and SAP Autism at Work have come together to create a bespoke editorial series celebrating neurodiversity in the workplace, to help people understand what it all means, to offer practical advice on how they can make positive changes to their business and to share the reasons why actively integrating people with autism into the workforce is so beneficial.

Find out more at tgr.ph/sapautism