As we look back and evaluate 2016 and the growth of employment opportunities for those on the autism spectrum, we can finally say that things are moving in a more positive direction. Is this due to greater awareness of autism spectrum disorders and abilities, governmental support, or the push from parents and self-advocates? – or maybe a combination of all of the above? Considering that it’s only just begun, it’s hard to decipher the exact tipping element, however, especially in this situation, change is good.
Stacey Hoaglund, Autism Florida President shares her thoughts on new employment opportunities
New Employment Opportunities
2016 saw large scale autism employment initiatives by corporate giants that recognized the potential of those on the spectrum. These have included companies like Microsoft, SAP, Google, and Hewlett Packard. Yes, these positions are predominantly tech-related, but there was also growth in companies outside of the Silicon Valley variety such as, Best Buy, Ford Motor, Deloitte, and Willis Towers Watson.
Specialisterne, a Danish company whose title literally means, “The Specialists”, is working in conjunction with several of these private companies. Their mission is to “share best practices, disseminate knowledge and spread the Specialisterne model, in order to provide training, education and employment for autistic people.” Specialisterne can be found in more than fifteen counties around the world, and continues to expand.
Micro or Social Enterprises
We’ve seen a huge crop of new autism-focused small private businesses. These companies hire people specifically because they have autism and build on their strengths. Examples include Platinum Bay Software (shirt design), ULTRA Testing (software evaluation) and SMILE Biscotti. There are currently more than 50 of these companies operating across the US. While they do provide an opportunity for employment, opponents are concerned about a potential lack of inclusionary opportunities and fear a return to the era of sheltered workshops. Foundations and universities are investing and carefully researching this form of employment option in hopes of further development.
This area of growth has been substantial, not just for the person with autism, but for literally the entire world. Never before have artists, musicians, writers and photographers had such an opportunity to expose their gifts to virtually anyone who’s interested. Because of the discovery of this new venue, people who previously had spent their lives desperately trying to fit into a world that wasn’t created with their gifts in mind, are now able to find communities that not only include them, but welcome them with open arms and great appreciation for all that they have to offer. Organizations such as The Art of Autism and the Autism Creatives Collective, offer internet-based collection sites for artists to showcase their creations.
The Road Ahead
While we seem to have “turned the curve” in relation to thinking outside the box a bit when it comes to employment options and opportunities, we still have a really long way to go. The unemployment rate in adults with autism continues to be staggering. According to a recent study highlighted by the United Nations, an estimated 80% or more of adults with autism around the world are unemployed. This is mostly due to “a shortage of vocational training, inadequate support with job placement, and pervasive discrimination,” according to a statement made by the UN.
The 2014, Department of Education’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), provided a significant financial increase to Vocational Rehabilitation supports and services. This increase has helped create a groundswell of post-secondary programs at colleges and universities to formulate ways in which to educate and support those living with autism – whether they’re degree or certification seeking students.
What Can You Do?
As a parent, professional, friend or even caring bystander of a person on the autism spectrum, there are things that you can do to help further the path towards successful employment:
- Encourage your place of employment to consider the natural abilities of those with autism (i.e.; eye for detail, desire for organization and arrangement, perceptions not otherwise considered, strong work ethic, etc) when hiring new staff.
- Offer social opportunities to build what Al Condeluci, CEO of Community Living and Support Services, refers to as Social Capital. It’s the “term that summarizes the value (tangible and intangible) of the relationships in our lives.” After all, the vast majority of today’s workforce obtained their jobs through the people that they have personal relationships with, so why would it be any different for a person with autism?
- Financially support autism based businesses and internet-based marketplaces.
- Ensure that the individual, regardless of their “exhibited” ability level, makes a connection with Vocational Rehabilitation – an agency funded to help those with disabilities obtain the employment goals they set for themselves.
- When children are young, give them inclusionary opportunities to the greatest extent possible. The world is not a special education classroom, and the best place to prepare people to live and work with those who are not disabled is in the general education classroom during their formative years.
When you meet someone for the first time, what is often the first question you ask? If you’re like most people, it’s “What do you do for a living?” By providing opportunities for employment, we not only give the prospect of financial gain, but also a sense of accomplishment, purpose and higher quality of life.