This post is by Merope Pavlides, editor of AutismAfter16.com, author of Animal-assisted Interventions for Individuals with Autism and mom to two sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.
I’m not typically a fan of “think tanks.” I worry that while good ideas might be developed at such gatherings, nothing concrete will be produced. Too much thinking, not enough doing. So it was with slight trepidation that on June 12-13 I participated—along with my husband and Autism After 16 publisher Peter Emch—in an Autism Speaks Employment Think Tank.
Imagine my glee to learn that this event, facilitated by Corporate Disability Consultants James Emmett and Christopher Simler, would have as its mission the creation of action plans and would serve to provide a foundation for the Autism Speaks Employment Tool Kit scheduled for release later this year. I was also pleased to find myself in a room full of people with similar missions—people concerned not simply with discussing employment needs of autistic adults, but focused on how to address those needs sooner rather than later and do it well.
Hosted by TIAA-CREF, the Think Tank’s agenda was spread over two days to allow for two groups of participants. On the first day autistic adults, service providers, vocational rehabilitation experts, researchers, and family members were at the table. The goal was to share experiences, but also to articulate a message to take into the next day’s meeting which was to be made up of employers. Day Two saw representatives from large corporations such as Denmark’s Specialisterne, TIAA-CREF, AMC, Best Buy, Office Max, ShopRite, and the YMCA, as well as smaller employers such as Extraordinary Ventures (North Carolina), Roses for Autism (Connecticut), Droga5 (New York), Words Bookstore (New Jersey) and CanDo Business Ventures (Florida). Autism Speaks representatives attended both days, with the Family Services staff helping keep participants focused on turning ideas into advocacy.
Lots of ideas were volleyed about over the course of the two days. As often happens in meetings like this, there was some preaching to the choir and a bit of asking each other to step up. Both of which are fine if they drive working toward a solution. More importantly, however, was the sharing of examples of models of employment and job supports that are working now. I greatly appreciated having the opportunity to hear from Thorkil Sonne, the founder of Specialisterne, who is making an impact not only in Denmark, but internationally. Learning about TIAA-CREF’s efforts at employing autistic adults in orchards, a project called Fruits of Employment, convinced me that it’s possible for large corporations to get creative about how employment is structured. And while I knew that AMC has been making inroads into employment for adults with disabilities, I didn’t know how well-entrenched the company’s efforts are. Andy Traub, Director of Recruitment for AMC, personified steadfast commitment to inclusive employment as he described the company’s FOCUS program, a collaboration between AMC and the Autism Society.
As I listened to conversation over the course of two days, it occurred to me that one theme continued to resurface: The need for meaningful co-worker supports for autistic adults in the workplace. Co-workers need training in how to help autistic employees be successful. And I don’t mean a couple hours of disability-awareness training in a conference room. What seems to be crucial in making adults with autism successful on the job is providing co-workers—both supervisors and peers—with the right tools. Tools to create a truly inclusive work culture, to help autistic employees learn in a work environment, and to develop productive supports in managing challenges. What we see all too often is that autistic adults don’t keep jobs, even when they find them. While this can occur due to bad job fit, it often is a result of lack of co-worker support. In addition, what must accompany co-worker education is adequate Transition services for students with autism so that they can acquire skills to make them as independent as possible on the job. Increased independence on the part of adults with autism means that co-workers feel less overwhelmed when trying to be helpful.
The great thing about fostering co-worker support is that not only does it make everyone’s life easier, it makes fiscal sense. Quality job coaching is hard to come by, and expensive. It’s hard to afford good job coaching long-term. But what if both service providers and employers really committed to providing co-workers with strategies to be successful mentors and to giving managers methods to foster team support of autistic adults? Wouldn’t that be a win-win? And, by the way, those co-workers who learn some strategies for working well alongside autistic adults might just take those same skills back home into community living.
By the end of the second day of the Employment Think Tank, I had lots to think about. In terms of doing, this means that Autism After 16 will continue to look for examples of working models of employment to spotlight, with an eye toward how these can be replicated. We’ll seek out those businesses that have created a culture which involves co-workers in the process of inclusion and that don’t see job coaching as an activity that happens in a bubble. And we’ll be turning our attention to service providers that demonstrate best practice in job coaching, who understand that support doesn’t mean doing the task for the employee or simply running interference with supervisors. Good job coaching means working with the employer to create an environment in which everybody learns.