Sitting in the parking lot of Blue Star Recyclers, I watched as employees arrived by bus and on foot. They ran and skipped into work; each of them 10 – 15 minutes early for their shift. The words of Leigh Schilling, Recycling Technician echoed in my head: “I have the honor of working.”
The number of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exiting the school system and entering the world of adulthood continues to rise. Unfortunately, the development of post-secondary education and employment opportunities has not kept pace with this increase, leaving many people with ASD unemployed and disengaged with their community. Competitive-integrated employment is defined as a job that provides at least minimum wage earnings and levels of benefit comparable to those of non-disabled workers. An integrated setting is one in which the person with a disability has the opportunity to interface with their non-disabled colleagues in the same manner and at the same frequency as their non-disabled colleagues (Fester, 2005).
It is estimated that over 80% of people with developmental disabilities are unemployed (U.S. Department of Labor, 2014). In addition to the increase in the number of people without work, the Labor Department reported an increase in the number of people with disabilities who stopped looking for jobs. A study by Eaves and Ho (2008) revealed that nearly half (45%) of people with ASD had never been employed and of those who had been employed, only 4% of the participants had employment that met criteria for being competitive. In a study examining post-secondary outcomes for young adults with ASD, only 6% were engaged in competitive employment and none of these jobs were full time. A minority of participants (12%) in the study were receiving services from job coaches with the vast majority spending their days in sheltered workshops or day centers (Taylor & Seltzer, 2011).
A cost-benefit analysis of employment and the support required to sustain employment found that for every dollar earned by a person with ASD, the services required to earn that dollar cost $26.74. Compared to other disability categories, people with ASD had the most expensive support needs (Cimera & Cowan, 2009). This begs the question, is this expense related to trying to fit a square peg in a proverbial round hole? In other words, what happens when the special interests and abilities of the person with ASD are capitalized upon? Is the need for support and resultant cost as great?
An 80/20 Problem with a 100% Solution
Blue Star Recyclers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established in Colorado with a mission of ethically recycling electronics to create local jobs for adults with ASD and other disabilities. This mission helps solve two totally unrelated problems. The first is wasted talent. It is inconceivable that over 80% of adults with ASD and other disabilities are unemployed when a portion of this workforce is custom made for repetitive, systematic, procedural, and tactile tasks. The second is wasted resources. Less than 20% of electronics are ethically recycled in the U.S., yet every element can be recycled, reused and/or repurposed (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2014).
The fulfillment of Blue Star’s mission to date has produced significant triple-bottom line results, including 25 permanent part time and full time jobs for people with ASD and other disabilities, 10 million pounds of electronics ethically recycled, and $5 million in combined earned income and taxpayer savings. While these are impressive outcomes for a small nonprofit, it is the workers who have posted the greatest accomplishments at Blue Star: Zero turnover, zero absenteeism, and zero lost-time accidents. These results demonstrate that the unemployment rate of people with ASD and related disabilities is tied to the lack of opportunity, not the lack of ability.
The idea behind Blue Star surfaced in 2008 when founder and CEO Bill Morris discovered a small group of adults with ASD dismantling electronics as unpaid volunteers in a day habilitation program. Bill was impressed by the level of innate skill and proficiency these unpaid workers demonstrated, and became convinced their aptitudes were worthy of paid employment. He helped create an employment enclave through a partnership with an electronics recycler in Denver who offered to pay five cents per pound to disassemble computers into their constituent base materials. The first four employees started work in October 2008, and almost immediately another discovery was made: In their new workplace setting (away from the day habilitation program) two employees with seizure disorder stopped having seizures, and one nonverbal employee became verbal. It was evident their entire overall state of well-being improved by having a purpose to their day and meaningful work where they could apply their talents. Capitalizing on these propensities obviated the need for job coaches. Blue Star is not a supported employment setting. The employees, who represent the full range of the autism spectrum, all work independently in a variety of positions alongside their colleagues without disabilities making this a truly integrated work setting.
Leigh Schilling, a Recycling Technician at Blue Star Recyclers, joined the organization in 2012 as a volunteer, and was later hired to join the production team. It was soon evident Leigh had a special proclivity for very precise manual tasks involving the disassembly of hard disk drives. At Blue Star every employee is accountable to achieve a daily production goal, and like the entire team, Leigh takes her team contribution seriously. She has set numerous record goal achievement levels, yet continually strives to improve upon them. Leigh reports that her job “allows me to give back to my community. I break down electronics and that keeps them from going into a landfill.”
Old electronics are often thrown in a drawer or put on a shelf and forgotten. What a troubling parallel to the potential employee with ASD. When I asked Leigh what the best part of her job was she replied, “I love to work. It gives me a purpose. I’ve found what I love to do AND I’m a contributing member of society.” Capitalizing on the special aptitudes and interests of people with ASD results in a motivated and highly skilled workforce. That’s enough to make any prospective employer want to skip into work.
Laurie Sperry, PhD, BCBA-D, is Assistant Clinical Professor at Yale University. Bill Morris is Founder and CEO and Leigh Schilling is Recycling Technician at Blue Star Recyclers.
Your Help is Needed! Please visit www.bluestarrecyclers.org to find out how you can support this organization and the employment of people with ASD.
Cimera, R. E., & Cowan, R. J. (2009). The costs of services and employment outcomes achieved by adults with autism in the US. Autism, 13(3), 285-302.
Eaves, L.C., & Ho, H.H. (2008). Young adult outcomes of autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 739-747.
Fester, M. (2005). MEMORANDUM FOR ADMINISTRATIVE STAFF, DISTRICT SUPERVISORS AND REHABILITATION COUNSELORS. Definition of Competitive/Integrated Employment.
Taylor, J.L., & Seltzer, M.M. (2011). Employment and post-secondary educational activities for young adults with autism spectrum disorders during the transition to adulthood. Journal of autism and Developmental Disorders, 41, 566-574.
United States Department of Labor Statistics (2014) Office of Disability Employment Policy. Retrieved from: http://www.dol.gov/odep/topics/disabilityemploymentstatistics.htm
United States Environmental Protection Agency (2014). Statistics on the Management of Used and End-of-Life Electronics. Retrieved from: http://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/cleaning-electronic-waste-e-waste