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Self-Advocates Weigh in on Autism Speaks' Think Tank

Kerry Magro, Founder and CEO of KFM Making a 'Difference in The Community' and social media consultant to Autism Speaks

Attending my first Think Tank Event was an amazing learning experience. As one of the self-advocates present who has never had full-time employment, my main goal was to try to share my perspective as a young adult who is currently going through the tribulations of trying to find a job within this struggling economy.

Day One focused a great deal on the self-advocates discussing our employment experiences, which was refreshing. Some of our central discussions were about the interview process, receiving accommodations in the workplace, disclosing our specific diagnoses, and more general communication/advocacy issues in the workplace. Many of these discussions had a common theme: in order to improve in these areas, we need to be willing emphasize what someone with autism can do instead of what he can’t. We want to encourage the abilities of our loved ones, and that means making employment a lifespan priority, encouraging educators, parents, and employers to train individuals with autism for the next step of their lives and using diversity training to make sure that everyone is accepted.

Social skills also seem to be a common area of difficultly for our community. One recommendation I pushed during Day One was getting rid of the traditional job interview process completely in exchange for a job-trial. Autism in itself is a social/communication disorder and one that puts many of us at a disadvantage in an interview process, which might not have any correlation to the actual job whatsoever. Several self-advocates mentioned that the best job experiences they’ve ever had were from technical jobs where they could work on individual projects instead of needing to work/communicate within a team environment.

I also encouraged employers to focus on providing accurate and specific job descriptions and getting rid of “clutter.” I would say for about 75% of the job interviews I’ve had, the employer had bullet points for the job description, which did not even apply to the position. Finding that “fit” for an individual with autism can be tough when a job focuses on descriptions that sound professional but are not accurate.

Overall, my assessment (I only had the opportunity to attend Day One) was that the Think Tank lived up to its title of a brainstorming session with some of the brightest/gifted minds of our community. An area of improvement for future Think Tanks needs to revolve around the moderation and set-up of who participates in each day. At times it seemed like several of the academic experts present were overpowering the conversation and it would have been nice to see a equal balance in those discussions. That can probably be achieved by inviting several additional self-advocates to attend next year’s conference. A minor addition however to what should be an amazing event for years to come!

 

John Taylor, Family Services Database Coordinator at Autism Speaks

Day One of the Think Tank gave the self-advocates the opportunity to speak about our experiences in finding and keeping jobs. Some voiced uneasiness about disclosing our diagnoses to prospective employers. There is a glaring lack of accurate information out there about autism– as well as blatant misinformation. These preconceived notions and misconceptions about autism can sometimes lead an employer to reject a job candidate who is on the spectrum.

Although it’s something I’ve lived with all my life, I was only diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in August 2009, at the age of 24. But whether or not I was aware of my diagnosis, it still affected my job prospects (or lack thereof). I mentioned that it was almost never an issue of whether I was able to perform the “hard skills” or job tasks required of me. What kept me from getting hired was usually the interview process, when one needs to demonstrate “soft skills,” such as eye contact and tone of voice, which can be very difficult for a person with ASD. Other self-advocates suggested that employers should do on-the-job trials instead of interviews. Although I did not voice my objection at the time, I do not completely agree with this. I like the idea of on-the-job trials, but they should be in addition to interviews. From my experience, there’s a certain sense of pride in having successfully gone through an interview just like any other job applicant. Of course, it helps a great deal when the interviewer has a good understanding of autism and is willing to overlook any social faux pas we might commit.

Day Two gave business leaders the opportunity to discuss their efforts and struggles in hiring individuals with autism. They told heartwarming stories of employees without disabilities who got a sense of hope knowing that there was a future for their children with disabilities. They pointed out that individuals with autism are often better at following company rules and have lower rates of absenteeism than their neurotypical peers. These characteristics, as well as the ability to focus on details, can be a great boost to a company’s bottom line.

There was something on my mind all along during the Think Tank that I wasn’t quite sure how to voice. It’s all very nice for companies to talk about their commitments to diversity and give themselves pats on the back for hiring someone with autism. But an employee isn’t just someone who performs a task for an employer. He or she needs to become a part of that company’s culture and interact with other employees and/or customers. What about those who are not willing to be understanding? What about those who have no qualms about using outdated or downright offensive terms for people with disabilities? This issue wasn’t completely ignored, but should’ve been discussed in further detail.

All in all, I believe the Think Tank accomplished a lot as a brainstorming session. The one major setback was that most of the self-advocates were present only on Day One, and the business leaders only on Day-Two. This was a major hindrance to the communication between the two segments. Any further meetings should have both parties at the table at the same time.