More often than not, when autism, ADHD, dysgraphia, dyslexia and other neurodiverse profiles come up in conversation or in public discourse, words like "challenge,” "hardship,” "disability,” "disorder,” "condition" and "special needs" typically cross the mind. To think about these diagnoses strictly in these terms overlooks the big picture in that there is growing evidence that certain exceptional abilities are directly relevant. As an autistic individual, I can personally attest to several of these: attention to detail, intense focus on tasks, pattern recognition, analytic thinking and moral decisionmaking, to mention just a few. Considering that these and other pertinent skills are valuable and marketable, the problem of extreme underrepresentation of neurodiverse people in the workforce is one that needs to be addressed.
Several surveys conducted in recent years by the Department of Labor, the Autism Society of America, The ARC and others show a grim employment picture for those of us on the autism spectrum and those diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities in general. More than 80 percent unemployment has been the result more than once. Thankfully, awareness of this issue is actively being raised and an increasing number of organizations and companies are stepping up to the plate, though there is still a long way to go.
Some companies are not aware that autistic individuals can be productive workers while other companies are aware of this and become interested in employing people with neurodiverse profiles. In both cases, such companies often are not able to effectively implement and manage an inclusive workforce. An organization known as Spectrum Works offers solutions that address this challenge. They educate young autistic adults as to how to live stable, economically self-sufficient lives while assisting partner companies in the establishment of an integrated workforce. In doing so, Spectrum Works aims to change society’s perception of how corporations can successfully employ and incorporate people with autism into the workplace.
Autistic students who face the transition from school to work can take advantage of on-the-job training opportunities and career development programs. Companies that partner with Spectrum Works design strategies geared toward accommodating diverse abilities and creating inclusive work environments. The partner company's managers and employees are trained to execute these strategies and to track progress and improve outcomes.
The College Internship Program (CIP) is an organization which empowers and enables young adults with learning differences to gain employment and succeed at the workplace. CIP also helps with the transition to higher education and with the development of independent living skills. They do so by offering a broad curriculum of classes and services that are tailored to meet the individual goals and needs of their students. Each student may choose to focus either on college academics or career development. The career development track offers small group hands-on instruction as well as internship, community service and employment experiences. Students learn skills that are essential to the acquisition and retention of competitive jobs including social competencies, the performance of executive functioning tasks such as time management and organization, self-assessment of employment skills and the management and growth of workplace relationships.
The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) supports employers' efforts to recruit, hire, retain and advance qualified individuals with disabilities. Online training, news, research and publications are among the resources available on their website. Covered topics include recruitment of qualified job candidates; strategies, policies and issues associated with advancing the inclusion of disabled people in the workplace; and disability inclusion best practices implemented by employers that have been successful in this endeavor.
As with EARN and Spectrum Works, Autism Resource Centers are also involved in helping companies establish neurodiverse hiring programs. The ARC of Philadelphia's Neurodiversity in the Workplace Initiative (NITW) helped Dell Technologies, ThermoFisher Scientific and others successfully implement autism hiring programs. The Neurodiversity in the Workplace Initiative connects autistic individuals to jobs that fit their skill sets. NITW partners with human resources departments in helping to identify the right candidates for the company’s open positions. They also support managers and other nonautistic co-workers as to how to best interact and work with new autistic hires. The Northeast ARC shares the same mission, partnering with businesses, supporting neurodiverse individuals, bringing them together, and in so doing, promoting diversity in the workplace. Their supported employment program has led to partnerships with the Home Depot, Starbucks, senior living communities and law firms, to name a few.
As an autistic adult who ended up having to endure several worthless, dead end jobs before becoming fortunate enough to establish a fulfilling career of 25 years and counting, I want what I have for all other neurodiverse people seeking meaningful employment. I champion the work that these organizations and all others like them are doing for a vulnerable community that deserves increased representation in the workforce. Autism, ADHD and other neurodiverse profiles entail considerably more than challenge, hardship and adversity. Unique perspectives and abilities are brought to the table. Lives and workplace cultures are enhanced, if not transformed. New possibilities surface, and the workplace is strengthened, simply by becoming more representative of the greater society. Workplace neurodiversity needs to continue to trend upward, for if it doesn't, untold levels of human potential will go untapped.
Sam Farmer wears many hats, among these father, husband, musician, computer consultant and autism spectrum community contributor. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s syndrome, he writes blogs and articles, records coaching videos and presents at conferences, sharing stories, ideas and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in life despite facing challenges and adversity that often interfere in these pursuits. To learn more, visit samfarmerauthor.com.
“A Long Walk Down a Winding Road: Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens” is available on Amazon and can be purchased at all major booksellers.