Changing Perspectives, Changing Lives – A Unique Partnership Between Project Prayas and SAP

By: Kavita Sharma, Founding Director, Project Prayas: A Computer and iPad Training Center for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Bangalore, India
Introduction By: Richard Billson, Guest Contributor and Member of the Global Sourcing Council Women’s Empowerment Committee

Introduction

As the father of a teenage boy with autism, my perspective has evolved over the years since his diagnosis at the age of 2. I witnessed a baby developing in a typical way become, almost overnight, a boy with severe challenges, both physical and mental. I struggled for a long time to cope with the dramatic changes that impacted both my son and my family as a whole. What has helped me above all is the support that he has received from many individuals and organizations dedicated to changing his life for the better: seeing possibilities not obstacles, including him as a valued and valuable member of society, honoring his differences.

The work described in this article by Kavita Sharma, Founding Director of Project Prayas is a shining example of the innovative ways in which resources can be harnessed to enable individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorders to maximize their skills, enrich their lives and make a productive contribution to society.

The Global Sourcing Council is proud to spotlight her insights and commentary regarding German software company SAP’s initiative to recruit people with autism as programmers and program testers. Working with the Danish start-up company Specialisterne to help find, train and manage employees with Autism Spectrum Disorders, SAP is aiming to populate its workforce of 65,000 by the same proportion of people diagnosed as autistic in society. This would represent about 1% of its workforce.

This article also holds significance as World Autism Awareness Day was celebrated on April 2. The United Nations General Assembly adopted by resolution World Autism Awareness Day in 2007. On this day, people around the world celebrate the unique talents and skills of persons with autism. In many countries the entire month is devoted to Autism Awareness and by way of support we invite our readers to learn more about this very unique approach to sourcing.

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Changing Perspectives, Changing Lives

This article will describe how technology equates itself beautifully with the exceptional skills of persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and how simple adaptations and communication approaches bring in success and add value to a business.

Leveraging the unique abilities of people with (ASDs) and to convert a disability into a special talent has been the main innovation for Project Prayas, an initiative of Autism Society of India together with SAP labs India Pvt. Ltd. Bangalore, India. How to bring in systemic changes while dealing with individuals who face social challenges was the uphill task that has been accomplished.

The Project Prayas Lab in Bangalore, India was visited by Ms. Anka Wittenberg, Head Diversity and Inclusion at SAP Germany, in July 2013. The Project Prayas team is shown with SAP volunteers.

The Project Prayas Lab in Bangalore, India was visited by Ms. Anka Wittenberg, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at SAP Germany, in July 2013. The Project Prayas team is shown with SAP volunteers.

SAP’s global mission is to reinforce and unfold the potential of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders towards a quality education and livelihood-inspired by Project Prayas, Autism Society of India, Bangalore, India. 

Testing software may be an activity with much repetition but it is a high-end skill and one that also needs precision. Since 2011, six individuals with ASDs have been employed at SAP Labs India Pvt. Ltd. Bangalore in this task, in a completely “open” employment situation. This means they work with no support from peers or anyone with respect to commuting, working, meeting deadlines, attending meetings, going for lunches and other similar activities.

“Be the change you want to see” – Mahatma Gandhi

ASDs are little understood in terms of their etiology as they are highly heterogeneous in nature, which leads most of society to look at them only from the therapeutic perspective. Mahatma Ghandi said: “Be the change you want to see” and this quote has inspired some parents of individuals with ASDs to bring about changes in the way autism has been depicted so far.

In the recent past, technology has brought hope for individuals with ASDs. Computers, iPads, iPhones, iPods and some other assistive technology-based devices like Alpha Smart and Go Talk together with some software, have made life easier for individuals with ASDs and their families. This is especially important because these solutions seem to be the non-threatening tools for individuals with ASDs where “Sensory- Defensiveness” issues need to be considered.

These tools, if used meaningfully during the earlier stages of intervention, help enhance cognition, communication and thus social skills. These technology-based solutions also open-up various avenues of employment, such as Internet-based activities, data entry, validation of software, development of teaching-aids like PECS, social stories and development of symbols/ clip art through appropriate animation software.

The condition of ASDs has been associated with a jigsaw puzzle. SAP along with Prayas and the Autism Society of India has made an attempt to solve the puzzle.

March 12, 2011 marked the beginning of the process of change that I was involved in, beginning with a series of iPad workshops which took place in a computer lab followed by iPad intervention in June 2011. The focus early-on was on skill development and was named ‘’Reinforcing Potentials through Computer and iPad Interventions’’.

As a mother of two sons on the spectrum I could see the need to address the sensory issues exhibited by individuals with ASDs, the need to teach in smaller groups, the importance of audio- visual media, empowering and involving parents in everyday training and providing them the additional knowledge related to the approach. I adopted all these in our work at the Prayas Center.

We sought to implement a continuous and consistent daily training where we prevented all those stimuli which would cause the behaviors described as sensory defensiveness to erupt. While the training was an evidence-based approach, it was clearly obvious that all individuals showed a keen interest and an ability to pay attention to detail along with an unerring focus.

We changed our modality from being concrete to abstract, increased the degree of difficulty, and we were happily surprised when we continued to obtain good results. We could see that the following abilities were very easy to equate with technology:

  • —Attention to detail
  • Photographic memory
  • Association of events to facts etc.
  • A Love of following order or structure
  • Learning in real-life situations
  • Use of repetition in achieving perfection
  • Unerring focus
  • Pattern recognition

An example of attention to detail exhibited by persons with ASD is shown below. The two drawings were done by my son Ujjwal Sharma, who is now a young 18 year old boy diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome. He drew the first picture when he was 10 yrs. old, never using a ruler. The second picture was drawn when he was 12 years old; it is a production of his visual photographic memory.

Sharma Graphic 1

Sharma Graphic 2Being socially challenged, many individuals with ASDs have a preference for computer activities as they do not then need to interact with other individuals, such as colleagues in the workplace. This characteristic inspired SAP to look at the employment prospects for these individuals.

Prayas was approached by SAP’s Test Center Team to explore the opportunities of employing persons with ASDs. Prayas, in turn, contacted a handful of individuals with ASDs. After an initial screening process conducted using a checklist developed at Prayas, they were invited for an interview along with their parents. This happened.

An on-site training started for four individuals was given by four “buddy” testers for a period of 6 weeks. By January 2012, all four trainees were on board and continued to work with their four buddies for the next six months. During this period, parents were also involved on a regular basis. While training continued, I facilitated the process by orienting the staff of the Test Center through seminars.

Various experiments were conducted with a view to helping these individuals to be productive, an approach that had never been tried by any other organization in India.

What is outstanding about this initiative is that it is being done
in a completely OPEN employment situation!

What is outstanding about this initiative is that it is being done in a completely open employment situation! All we needed to do was to adopt the ‘’Social Adaptations’’ through a systematic change. These social adaptations do not cost money; they are attitudinal changes – the way that the condition of autism is viewed.

  • Understanding individuals with ASDs as being orderly instead of being rigid
  • Understanding them as being truthful and straightforward instead of being rude
  • Understanding their sensory needs instead of associating them with negative behavioral issues.

Many individuals with ASDs have a constant desire to engage in repetitive activity. For a neurotypical person, testing software can be a boring task whereas an individual with ASD can use their ability and enthusiasm to work on scheduled tasks in an orderly and productive manner. Finally what worked was Changing Perspectives by looking at ‘’Ability in Disability’’.

Currently, SAP now has five individuals working in open employment who have been in the company for more than two years and have been of great value to the business. This has encouraged SAP to take a global decision that 1% of their workforce will be persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders by 2020.

By the year 2020, persons with ASDs will represent 1% of SAP’s workforce.

SAP has taken further steps to mobilize this initiative across the globe and is collaborating with Mr. Thorkil Sonne from Specialist People Foundation of Denmark and the USA. SAP is also collaborating with the University of Cambridge, in particular with Dr. Simon Baron Cohen who will provide advice and assistance in enabling employment.

In India, while the initial work has been done with respect to employment, there are still several gaps in the education system. ASDs are still not considered to be a disability under the Persons with Disability Act of 1995. This prevents the individual from exercising their rights of education and participation. There has been significant work done by numerous advocates to amend the Act, with the consequence that ASDs will likely be recognized by law. The Act has now been renamed as “Rights of Persons with Disability Act of 2012” and is due to be passed by the Indian government soon.

While this happens, parents and many like-minded professionals and corporations continue their own efforts to reinforce and unfold the potential of individuals with ASDs to enhance their educational and work opportunities.

While creating appropriate employment was the focus of our efforts, we also worked on the technology-based early intervention approach to teaching. To enable this, an online free resource called www.learn4autism.com was developed with the help of SAP volunteers from the department of Custom Development.The prime focus of this resource is to develop skills related to computers.

We aim to have this resource as the largest repository of computer-based education for persons with ASDs. We have developed the content on a user-friendly platform and encourage parents and educators to contribute. This resource also addresses the need of those families who cannot afford Internet access but have been given laptops and desktops. All one needs to do is download and copy the entire content onto a CD and give it to the family in need.

SAP volunteers have also helped Prayas in developing an iPad app called Bol which addresses the communication needs of non-verbal children with ASDs. It also addresses the diversity needs of Indian culture by giving an option of customization.

The association of Prayas /Autism Society of India with SAP has been very objectively oriented and has enabled us to address issues related to awareness, accessibility and affordability.

At a personal level, it has been a very satisfying journey for me to see these individuals beaming with confidence and bringing hope to many parents.

About the Author: Kavita Sharma is Founding Director- Project Prayas an initiative of Autism Society of India. Ms. Sharma is also Founder Member, Responsible for Advocacy Issues related to Autism, at Autism Society of India. For more information about her inspiring work, you may contact her at:

60, Vittal Mallya Road, Bangalore- 560001 India
Telephone +91 (8826654911)

About our Guest Contributor: Richard Billson is on the board of The Hawthorne Foundation, Gallup NYC, and an advisor/fundraiser for Special Needs Activity Center for Kids (SNACK), in NYC.

 

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