Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Few adults with autism hold jobs in community
Andy Burns, 26, can tell you just about anything you need to know about birds and guinea pigs. He can determine what type of pet food is best for your small critter. He has a corgi that he and his mom are training to be a service dog.
His mom jokingly calls her son the “animal whisperer.”
So, the two of them went to get him a job at a pet store. Carole Burns asked the manager: Can he clean cages? Can he stock shelves? He’s really good with animals.
“The manager said, and I kid you not, she said, ‘Oh, I’d never hire anybody with autism. It’s too much of a liability,’ ” Burns said.
Although furious, she didn’t say anything despite it being a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I never reported her because I don’t want my son blacklisted,” Carole Burns said. “I want him to get hired somewhere.”
As of 2017, there were 37,570 people with autism in southeastern Wisconsin, which the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin defines as Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Jefferson, Dodge, Washington and Ozaukee counties.
Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in 59 people have autism spectrum disorder, according to figures released last year. Autism organizations contend that if anything, the number is likely an under-count.
Around 50,000 people with autism reach adulthood every year, but only 14% of adults with autism hold a paying job in the community, according to the National Autism Indicator’s Report. “In the community” is key; it means among people who do not have autism.
Andy ultimately did get a job. His mother worked in the West Allis School District at the time, so two days a week for a couple hours, he would help a lunch crew by emptying a delivery truck and stocking shelves.
“They all loved him,” Burns said. But then she got a job working for Milwaukee PBS.
He wouldn’t go to his school district job anymore, even though she could still drop him off at the school. “Everything was the same,” she said. But, it wasn’t the same. His safety net was gone.
‘Highly productive workers’
Both locally and nationally, autism advocacy organizations are trying to integrate people with autism — when possible — into the workplace. It’s a process that starts with leveling the hiring process so people with autism can highlight their skills, continues through the transition to a new job, and involves sensitivity to helping those new hires find a comfort zone and succeed.
Islands of Brilliance, a Milwaukeebased nonprofit, gives young people with autism the opportunity to design and create things using technology. It also helps students improve their communication skills with peer-to-peer interactions.
The nonprofit works with about 150 students as young as 8 years old, because the longer they are exposed to an environment that includes collaboration and communication, the more likely they are to succeed, said Mark Fairbanks, executive director of Islands of Brilliance.
“When you hear about how many technology workers the region needs, we can’t put a dent in that, but if we can train a few hundred over the next five years, those are individuals who are going to stay in Milwaukee, and they’re highly productive workers,” Fairbanks said.
Candidates start with a skills assessment, then progress through different levels, from working independently with support, to handling assigned projects, to working a job in the organization, and finally to working outside.
A special education teacher oversees all the workshops, and students are matched with mentors from the design field, who can vouch for the quality of their work and hopefully open doors to employment.
Discrimination hard to prove
Nationally, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network attempts to make employers comfortable with the idea of autistic employees. The organization itself is run by and for people with autism.
“There’s stereotypes about autistic people being uncaring or not being competent,” said Zoe Gross, director of operations at the network. “There’s an idea that autistic people are sort of like children forever. That makes people think we can’t be responsible.”
She said discrimination can occur right away, during the hiring process.
“Unfortunately, discrimination in hiring can be the hardest to prove,” Gross said. “It’s a lot easier to prove if, say, you were working at this place then I asked for a reasonable accommodation and then they fired me. But, when people discriminate when hiring, they can often say that something was a deciding factor that wasn’t.”
A nonprofit called Integrate Autism Employment Advisors tries to bridge that problem, pairing qualified candidates with autism with Fortune 1,000 businesses. Its client is the business that wishes to establish a hiring program for people with autism.
“(We) help them look at their interview process and make modifications, so that people on the autism spectrum can come in and demonstrate their skill sets and strengths without having to necessarily deal with some of the social communication aspects of the interview,” said Marcia Scheiner, president of the organization.
Scheiner, whose son has autism, founded the organization — originally called the Asperger Syndrome Training and Employment Partnership — in 2010.
Integrate Autism Employment Advisors also works with employers on how to ease a new employee’s transition.
“We’ll talk about where they might seat somebody on the spectrum. Don’t put them close to pantries or noisy copy machines. We look at their cultural environment. We look at what people in the organization know about people on the spectrum.”
Scheiner said hiring individuals with autism makes sense because they can be creative thinkers, finding solutions that others don’t typically see.
The nonprofit has placed 15 people in recent months to five different employers, and it is seeing more demand in the tight job market, Scheiner said.
“We have more people on the autism spectrum who have graduated from college, and I don’t think our vocational system has caught up with that in terms of providing support and services in helping people get jobs and appropriate employment,” Scheiner said. “That’s why I think we see such a large unemployment rate.”
Seeing opportunities, not hurdles
Amy Van Hecke, founder of the Marquette Interdisciplinary Autism Consortium, said even committed employers may fall short. Often, people with autism are underemployed, she said.
“I see time and again them working at the grocery store, or they’re shelving books at a library, and they are really talented individuals. I think there’s a disconnect between their talents and employment that matches that talent,” Van Hecke said.
Even those who do get jobs may be passed up for advancement opportunities.
“How much of our promotions and work attainment and achievement are based on the social relationships with your colleagues?” Van Hecke said. “That would be an area where they would struggle quite a bit.”
Van Hecke said that for the situation to improve, it’s key for an employer — and society at large — to begin thinking of autism spectrum disorder symptoms not as hurdles, but as strengths that are outside the norm.
For example, one of the diagnostic symptoms of autism spectrum disorder is “restricted and repetitive interests,” Van Hecke said.
“What you can actually look at with restricted and repetitive interest is expertise,” Van Hecke said. “The little kid obsessed with trains, maybe he could work for Amtrak. How do we channel what is a diagnostic symptom into something that really is … what we call expertise?”
Van Hecke also said that because people with autism think differently, they can see solutions to problems that other don’t see.
“These are the kinds of people that could cure cancer because they think differently, and that’s where you need someone with a restricted interest, someone who is going to put all their energy into that problem,” Van Hecke said.
Fairbanks, from Islands of Brilliance, said he sees reason for optimism.
“I think employers are starting to see that individuals on the spectrum have a lot to offer in terms of skill sets, reliability, attention to detail,” Van Hecke said. “Some things that make autism autism makes you a really good employee. Society
is going to come around eventually.”
Unspoken workplace rules
One of the challenges with autism — both for potential employers and employees — is that it’s not a cookie cutter disability. While most people with autism struggle with social communication, the way that one person struggles and the way he or she overcomes that can be completely unique.
“If they have a hard time communicating verbally, people assume they’re intellectually disabled, and they’re not,” Van Hecke said. “When you see this person’s writing or how they communicate, it’s incredibly insightful.”
In a typical workplace, there is a natural pace or rhythm. People say hello first thing in the morning, catch up on news over coffee, engage in work lunches, refill their water bottles. Most people understand the unspoken social rules of the workplace; they are usually followed without question.
“Different people have different work styles and different interaction styles,” Van Hecke said. “They can still be great employees, but don’t assume malevolence on their part because they don’t gather at the water cooler.”
Most people have neurotypical brains, or brains that follow the typical pathways. We pick up on social cues. We detect sarcasm.
The counterpart to the word neurotypical is neurodiverse, which describes people with autism, who don’t have typical pathways. They think differently; they think outside of the box. Most are extremely literal. Most struggle with social communication.
Scheiner, of Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, said the employment world hasn’t caught up to neurodiversity.
“We get jobs by going through an interview process, and an interview process is really all about your social communication skills and where people on the autism spectrum oftentimes struggle the most,” Scheiner said. “Our whole process for interviewing people really plays into the challenges people on the autism spectrum have.”
Lauren Krause is a junior in high school. Next year, she will become one of the 50,000 people with autism to enter adulthood. She also plans to be one of the adults with autism attending college. She’s not sure where she wants to go yet, but she knows she wants to study veterinary science.
She has a job working the front counter at a pizza place in Milwaukee. She found it through Indeed.com.
Krause said the people at her job are nice. She also said she likes that she’s always moving and that she gets paid. However, the job can be tiring, and she dislikes talking to strangers, Krause said.
But little by little, she’s adjusting and making it work.
“Don’t be scared of new things,” Krause said in an email interview that was dictated through her mother. “Talking to people doesn’t kill me. Mom was right about this.”