On the job market, with autism

Adults with autism span a range of skills, abilities, education levels and interests. Many are looking for work

Published February 5, 2018 6:58PM (EST)


Excerpted with permission from "The Autism Job Club" by Michael S. Bernick and Richard Holden. Copyright 2018, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

On the first Saturday of each month, the Bay Area Autism Job Club gathers at the ARC building, located at 11th and Howard in San Francisco’s South of Market area. Fifteen or so adults with autism are in attendance, ranging in age from early twenties to fifties, and even one member, James Ullrey, age 72.

It is not easy to see the Autism Job Club as the vanguard of change for workers with autism. At the meetings, club members will laugh inap­propriately or talk to themselves, go off topic, stare into space, wander around. Though many of the members have at least some college educa­tion—and a significant number have college degrees—they all are on the employment margins. Some are unemployed; most have part-time or contingent lower wage employment. The club meetings focus on relatively basic job search skills, résumé skills, and interviewing skills.

Yet, the Autism Job Club, and hundreds of other local groups across the United States, are experimenting with new employment projects and structures for workers with autism and other neurodi­verse conditions—cerebral palsy, dyslexia, learning disabilities. It is an effort pushed forward by the unsustainable rise in costs of govern­ment disability programs, changing social views, and most of all, the fierce energy and extra-governmental efforts of families and friends of workers with neurodiverse conditions.

Autism: A True Spectrum

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” Temple Grandin responds when asked about the charac­teristics of persons with autism. Ms. Grandin, a professor of animal science and inventor who was diagnosed with autism as a child, has been a presence in the autism community nationwide since the early 1980s, with separate memoirs published in 1986 ("Emergence: Labeled Autistic") and 1996 ("Thinking in Pictures"). She became known to a wider population in 2010 through the movie, "Temple Grandin," in which she was portrayed by actress Claire Danes.

Adults with autism span a wide range of skills, abilities, education levels, and interests. Much of the conventional wisdom regarding work skills and deficiencies of persons on the spectrum is wrong. Adults on the spectrum, for example, do not all excel in areas of math or science (most don’t) or are “little geniuses.” At the same time, adults on the spectrum are not all plagued by social isolation or difficulties/a lack of interest in workplace relations (many are very social).

So it is with the diversity of skills and abilities in our autism job club, as is clear from our first meetings. In early November 2011, the Autism Asperger Syndrome Coalition for Education Networking and Development (AASCEND), the volunteer group of adults with autism and their friends and families, posted a note to its members regarding the formation of a job club. At the first meeting, on Saturday, November 19, forty of us gathered in a small classroom at the City College campus in downtown San Francisco. As we went around the room, the participants described their job status and job searches, which varied widely. Here is how each participant described himself or herself at the time:

  1. Paul, 54, has a handyman business in Stockton that he has been trying to build up. He has a BA degree in geography from Fresno State and has held a few jobs in the field that didn’t last long. This led him to self-employment.
  2. Andrew, 32, completed two years of college and is working part-time with a recycling company while pursuing his sculpturing and design work.
  3. Alex, 31, has a BA degree in child/adolescent education from San Francisco State University. His job history includes short-term stints as a courtesy clerk at a large supermarket, a busman at a coffee shop chain, and a four-month position in the technology department of a major hotel. He currently is volunteering at the ARC while he looks for a job.
  4. Gabriel, 28, has some college credits and is doing short-term transcription gigs he finds through family contacts while he seeks a full-time job.
  5. Mark, early forties, worked in the information technology field for fifteen years as a consultant. His business partner, who was responsible for business development, passed away four years ago, the company fell apart, and Mark has not worked steadily since.
  6. Martha, late twenties, has a masters degree, but has been able only to find work twelve hours a week as a clerk in a small legal office. She seeks more steady work, perhaps in a job related to her library science degree.
  7. Jim, 72, is the senior member of the group. He has college degrees in physics and chemistry and worked for Apple on a project basis a few years back. Mainly, though, he has worked in non-technology jobs: delivering pizza, doing yard work, super­vising an after-school program for youth. He is not working now, but at seventy-two, still in the market for work.

The Autism Job Club Comes Together and Branches Out

Since that first meeting in November 2011, a number of the original participants have stopped coming. Some have found jobs, others have drifted out. Meanwhile new members have joined the group. The club is a fluid one; members come for as long or short a time as they find value. Some participants are employed or in school but come to improve their job search skills for future employment.

We rely mainly on volunteers—counselors, parents, graduate students. Cindy Zoeller is a workforce career coach in Sacramento who heard about the job club and drove ninety miles to the organi­zational meeting. She volunteers as the club facilitator, preparing the agenda and handouts and leading each session. She is joined by John Comegys, a job coach from Dixon who comes to volunteer, along with four graduate students from San Francisco State University.

The meetings start with an update on our job searches and a sharing of job leads. Each meeting then focuses on a specific job-search tech­nique: using job boards, interviewing, preparing a résumé, getting in the door through part-time or contingent work, resolving issues that arise on the job. In between meeting dates, Ms. Zoeller keeps in touch with individual members to discuss their specific job situations and job searches.

Beyond the job placement activities, the club soon branched out in 2012 and early 2013 with other employment strategies. Brian Jacobs, a venture capitalist and job club volunteer, launched a LinkedIn site, Spectrum Employment Community by AASCEND. The site is an online discussion board for job club members, as well as an online job board and an online reference for employers. It is also a reference for parents and advocates seeking to keep up with latest information on employment for workers with autism.

In 2012, two club members, Luby and Andy Aczel, started a combination business/training agency, The Specialists Guild (Guild). The Guild is aimed at training persons with autism for employment in software testing—an occupation which the Aczels believe can be uniquely suited to persons with autism. The Aczels and other club members also built an autism technology employment network to promote hiring with Bay Area technology firms.

Laura Shumaker started a popular autism blog for the San Francisco Chronicle. She volunteered to research and report on autism employ­ment efforts elsewhere in California.

Our Collective Journey

The employment journeys of our job-club members, especially those of the older members, have been difficult ones. For them, getting a job rarely leads to employment stability. Our members may be slower than others to pick up tasks, behave in inappropriate manners, not appear on time, or lose jobs in the largely unforgiving job world.

Some job placement projects for adults with autism focus today on interviewing skills and improving eye contact, and making a positive presentation. All of these are valuable skills and our Autism Job Club seeks to teach them. Cindy Zoeller has sessions to videotape mock interviews and review them with our members.

Yet, the obstacles facing our members usually go way beyond eye contract. These obstacles may involve major cognitive gaps and infor­mation processing gaps. They may involve major gaps in judgment. They may involve a lack of executive skills—including knowing what to do and being able to act effectively if a job is lost.

The building of a better employment system for adults with autism will take the active efforts of all of us. It will involve pilot projects, experiments, and missteps. It will mean building on thousands of different efforts across the United States by adults with autism, parents, and advocates coming together.

The FRED conference in Los Angeles for “special needs adults” is one of the main annual national conferences involving the autism community. In March 2014, the panel on employment was the featured panel, and the conference lead, Ms. Mari-Anne Kehler, opened by stating, “Nothing says purpose and living with meaning like employ­ment.” Then followed several references by the panel moderator, an attorney in the San Gabriel Valley, to the “incredible” skills of our young adults with disabilities and the “amazing” employment projects they were involved in, that were paving the way to fuller employment.

The employment opportunities that the participants described, though, were very modest: a job at a small restaurant in Albuquerque; a micro-business in animation started by a college student with autism in Southern California; a series of small ventures in laundry service, premium candles, and office services by a non-profit autism agency in Chapel Hill. Looked at one way, the number of jobs generated was minuscule; the claims of fuller employment exaggerated.

Yet looked at another way, something unusual and noteworthy was going on in the conference room. The presenters and audience were not whining or complaining or presenting themselves as victims. Nor were they waiting for government to do something. Against all odds, they were trying to generate employment for themselves and others, to engage in mutual support, to work with government, but also outside of government.

The autism community’s efforts toward a better employment system are still in their very early stages. We are in a wilderness that we only partly understand, and on a road that is not clearly marked. We have much to discover.

By Michael S. Bernick

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By Richard Holden

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