A wave of high school and college graduates with talent, ability, and a tremendous capacity to contribute are hitting the job market but they are not getting hired. Recent statistics show that 75% of people with autism spectrum disorders are either unemployed or under employed. Many of those that are working are performing in menial jobs that do not reflect their talents and skills.
As a licensed social worker for the past 20 plus years, I have served a niche area working with teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. My focus is on preparation for transition, career counseling, and job coaching as they struggle to move forward with their lives post-graduation. Many have high school diplomas, college degrees, and some graduate degrees. Irrespective of their educational background, work can be elusive.
For people with AS or high functioning autism, a large part of the problem in getting hired is the lack of understanding on the part of the employer as to who they are and what they can offer. These challenges affect the interview process and when competing for a given position, the person with ASD inevitably loses.
My goal was to find a way to level the playing field for these individuals by finding a company that, if given the appropriate supports, was willing to learn the advantages of employing these young adults, creating a win/win for both.
Rowan Document Solutions is a small boutique company servicing private practitioners, medical groups, and hospitals by imaging medical reports. Imaging of medical documents requires preparing the charts to go into the scanners. Charts are meticulously gone through to prepare them for the scanning process. There is a data entry requirement at the beginning and end of this process. It is important to note at this time that this company is run by my son Greg Rowan, who through his association with myself and my work, along with volunteer activities, was no stranger to working with people with disabilities. The story of how this company hired and retained the services of a handful of people with ASD to its financial benefit began with educating the employer.
Employers tend to fear the unknown. If they lack experience in a particular area, they will be wary of it. If they have never encountered people with cognitive differences, they will be nervous about hiring them.
Step 1 – Break down the barriers of fear and ignorance; a whole new labor pool is opened up to them. With education and a solid support strategy, employers are taught the benefits of hiring people with strong personal characteristics like reliability, honesty, and loyalty as well as their creativity, technical proficiency, and attention to detail. These attributes equate to positive financial gains to businesses. Other advantages to hiring people with disabilities are wage subsidy programs, tax incentives, and social marketing benefits.
“Social marketing is a relatively new idea in the corporate world. Corporations are recognizing that monetary- and voluntary-based contributions that support increased employability of people with disabilities make good marketing practice” (Finding Work That Works for People With AS, Gail Hawkins. Jessica Kingsley Press, 2004).
Step 2 – After the employer has a better understanding of the advantages of hiring people with ASD, a job coach or professional promoting employment meets with the supervisors for training. These are the people who will be on the front lines working directly with the individual. They are educated about the strengths and challenges of the individual, and have their questions and concerns addressed. An ongoing, open communication for troubleshooting between the job coach, supervisors, and the employee for as longs as is needed is recommended.
Step 3 – Setting up the work environment for success. This requires a detailed study of the work environment by the job coach or employment specialist. What is the configuration of the work station, how is the work distributed, what are the specific tasks and instructions for getting the job done, and where does it go when completed? Visual supports, a daily work schedule, including reminders and a detailed task list are provided at the work station if needed.
Step 4 – Prior to starting work, the prospective employee is brought in for an orientation. At this time they meet their supervisors and co-workers, take a tour of the office, become familiar with the company’s mission, and begin to learn the structure and routines of the company. We opted not to disclose their disability to the office staff, although over time people became aware of the “difference.” Ultimately they were embraced and supported by their co-workers, and as Greg would point out, “We were all enriched by their presence.”
Step 5 – Making sure the work works for the person hired is determined through a one month probation period. During this time the employee meets with the job coach and supervisor daily to work out the glitches, communicate expectations, and if needed a skills development plan and supports are put in place to assure their success.
Full disclosure requires that I mention that out of four employees hired, one individual did not have the organizational and attentional skills needed to get the job done with accuracy and in an acceptable time frame. Three employees are still on the job a year later.
Clearly my personal relationship with the employer helped to clinch the deal with Rowan Document Solutions and created an opportunity for the prospective employees to be hired. Not everyone has that advantage. Seek out supportive employers who are willing to hire, with an appreciation for unique talent and skills, and a willingness to learn what motivates people. The result will be a win-win for all, opening the doors to opportunity for many.
Patricia Rowan, LMSW, is a consultant and advocate with Kid’s Connection. Pat is also a member of the Westchester, NY Autism Advisory Committee. For more information, email Pat at firstname.lastname@example.org.