BOSTON (April 16, 2014) - Yesterday, the Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts (AFAM) held their annual Autism Spectrum Awareness and Acceptance Day at the Massachusetts State House. Members of the autism community and those who have tirelessly advocated on behalf of such individuals gathered to discuss a path to successful employment. According to recent reports, 92% of individuals with autism are unemployed and many of those who are employed are only employed part-time. With the astounding number of individuals with autism transitioning into adulthood in the next years, employment is a vital topic.
At this year’s meeting, State Senate President Therese Murray was honored with AFAM’s Impact and Achievement Award for her many contributions to the autism community. She has been a strong supporter and loyal friend of the autism community and a driving force in the healthcare reform.
Barbara Jackin, an attorney and parent, spoke about individuals with autism in the workplace. She spoke specifically about her 29-year-old son Jack’s positive experience with his previous jobs. Ms. Jackin stressed how the community must switch from focusing on how work will be good for those with autism to how “people with autism can be good for the workplace.” This change in perspective is necessary to see numerous benefits of having individuals with disabilities in the workplace. For instance, she spoke of her son’s successful work experiences and how he ultimately brightened the days of his colleagues and was even asked to stay on in a janitorial job after his program ended.
Cheryl Chan, who is a transitional specialist and parent, delivered another informative and inspirational speech. Ms. Chan is on the board of the Autism Housing Pathways, and wil be launching a new non-profit to support caregivers. She discussed the necessity of early planning and preparing individuals with autism with particular skill sets to function in the work place. She saw how important this preparedness was with her own son, who through a specialized employment program and support is now an employed adult. Ms. Chan stressed how individuals with autism are not employed not because they can’t be, but because they are not always prepared with the right skills.
Another enlightening speech came from Dan LePore, an employee for 17 years at Walgreens, who spoke about the Walgreens specials needs employment initiative. This initiative began almost 12 years ago as a way to give jobs to people with disabilities. Through the continuous efforts to partner with various support centers for people with disabilities, Walgreens continues to employee more and more individuals with disabilities. As a result of the astounding success these individuals have demonstrated as employees Walgreens hopes to have over 20% of its store workforce be individuals with disabilities. It is the commitment of companies like Walgreens that help rid the stigma associated with adults with autism and help to find employment for everyone.
Finally, the most inspirational speech of the day came from Michael Mayes, a twenty-three year old self-advocate. Michael spoke about the hardships of being an individual with autism, but also about how with the support of his parents and those who believed in him he has been able to accomplish so much. Michael is an incredible inspiration; this past May he graduated from Mitchell College, where he studied sports management, he has coached youth baseball, and was a member of Governor Deval Patrick’s Statewide Youth Council. Michael continues to participate in forums for parents and professionals, hoping that through his public speaking he can be a voice for individuals with autism. April 14th, marked the first day of Michael’s job at Reebok, or what he described as his entrance into adulthood.
In addition to these truly wonderful speeches, Barbara L’Italien, the 2010 Massachusetts Autism Commission Chair, provided a legislative update and a summary of AFAM’s priorities and accomplishments. Today, the autism omnibus bill (HB3771) will be voted on in the House. This bill seeks to have a permanent commission to help advocate and push forward goals of the autism community. It will also require that public school teachers seek the autism certificate in order to better care for the needs of children with autism in a classroom. Finally, similar to the ABLE Act, there will be pre-tax savings for housing, education, services and support. This bill will help make large strides in the autism community in Massachusetts.