April is National Autism Awareness Month and it is also a time of transition. Students and recent graduates, including neurodiverse adolescents, are beginning to seek out places in the professional world. One in 54 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder. Marlene Sotelo, COO of the Els Foundation for Autism, and Michael Alessandri, Clinical Professor and Executive Director of the University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern, share their perspective. on vocational education and training for young adults. on the spectrum.
Julia Brodsky: What are the biggest challenges people with autism face when looking for jobs and training?
Marlene Sotelo: One of the biggest challenges is to compete for limited opportunities with the neurotypical population that has also been out of work. Another challenge is that large industries still lack experience in supporting employees on the spectrum. However, with Microsoft, SAP, Dell, Ernst and Young and others creating employment initiatives for people with disabilities, I hope we can rally a great industry. It’s heartwarming to see some compassionate small businesses, including mom and pop stores, like Oceana Coffee Roasters who we work with, move in that direction as well.
Brodsky: What do companies gain from training and hiring neurodiverse employees?
Michael Alessandri: The inclusive environment helps to elevate the culture of the company. There are people with undisclosed disabilities in all businesses. By putting in place these types of supports, it helps in the retention of your employees. Many people have relatives with disabilities. When the company demonstrates a commitment to wider diversity, it really connects with employees on a deeper level. And every business should consider where people with disabilities, regardless of their level of functioning, can fit into.
The pandemic has been helpful in educating neurotypical people about the power of visual aids and visual engineering of environments, such as hand washing and signs of social distancing. These types of visual aids are part of what is needed to make work environments more welcoming to neurodiverse employees. And that kind of environment and training pays off. Recently, a car wash company, Rising Tide Car Wash, started hiring people on the spectrum. They went from washing 3,000 cars per month to washing 17,000 cars per month, all while employing reliable, focused and neurodiverse employees.
Brodsky: Are there legal barriers to training and hiring people with disabilities?
Alessandri: The laws of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are a good starting point for providing protection for the physically disabled, blind, deaf and hard of hearing. Laws have been put in place to guarantee them access to buildings and access to employment. We need to expand this concept of universal design to the invisible needs of people with autism, such as visual aids.
Brodsky: What are the best practices for educating and training people on the spectrum?
Sotelo: We have created a 10 work experiences training program. We have an established curriculum that we have developed to teach them soft skills, as well as job and interview skills. It also gives them experience to add to their CVs. One of the challenges is to match the person’s interest with the available opportunities. We build relationships with businesses – from bakeries to Publix, G4S, Computer Aid, Inc. and more – helping create skilled jobs for our interns. We also educate potential employers on alternative hiring practices. One of the biggest challenges for people on the spectrum is the social communication aspect of the interview; best practice is to allow the individual’s skills to manifest through task-oriented interviewing. For example, I once interviewed a person for a facility manager position. I would show them the things that were broken and they would tell me how to fix them. In this way, a potential candidate can demonstrate whether he can meet the requirements of the position.
Brodsky: Where can companies looking to hire neurodiverse people get training and advice?
Alessandri: There are organizations like ours all over the world that are ready to step in and support businesses. The United States Office of Disability Employment Policy for Autism coordinates with employers to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Additionally, each state has a chapter of the Autism Society of America. And the vocational rehabilitation departments in each state are a good resource that could connect the employer with a vocational rehabilitation provider like ELS for Autism Foundation. The “Building A Neurodiverse Workforce” conference is one of many resources available to companies interested in starting a neurodiverse workforce program.
Our online course, The Autism Advantage, helps people with autism and their families who want to start their own business. We have also created training modules for employers, open to companies wishing to train.
We must remember that everyone is employable. It’s about finding the right job, finding the right job, making sure the right supports are in place, and making sure the culture of the organization is able to support that employee through tough times. .