“World Autism Awareness Day,” a “Call to Action—Employment for Persons with Autism” was at the UNITED NATIONS, and I of course, I attended. What could offer better solace to a mother whose young adult daughter on the spectrum has been unemployed for almost a year, after graduating cum laude from Pace University,(!)? (Of course, an actual job offer would be better than solace.) In the meantime, it was still gratifying to hear the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, assure his audience that worldwide employment of people on the autistic spectrum was a “high priority,” for both him and his wife.
What a difference a year can make! Remember when I wrote about April being devoted to “autism awareness” last year? (See “April and Autism,” 4/4/14). I shared my conviction that a single month of “awareness” was absurdly insufficient to resolve the complex issues of a growing epidemic that currently affects 1 out of 68 babies. Year-round awareness—and more importantly, ACTION—is essential if we are planning to help the current tsunami of young adults on the spectrum find their place in the world.
Keynote speaker and governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, remarked that only 30% of people with disabilities are currently included in the workforce, and only 50% of individuals on the spectrum have EVER held a job. The governor pointed out that employing people with autism is a “win-win.” (Be still my beating heart!) We must stop “taking care of people with autism, and embrace their diversity,” he remarked, causing more hope to well up in my chest. Do you want to hear my favorite line from the whole event: “Let’s not make this someone else’s problem to solve.”
For a full three hours, I listened to 27 thought leaders from different areas of the autism world talk about how and why individuals on the spectrum should be hired. Business people from Specialisterne, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and SAP all argued that training and hiring people on the spectrum will actually benefit organizations, instead of being an act of charity.
What are the benefits of hiring people on the spectrum?
1. Demonstrating leadership in addressing the unacceptably high unemployment rate among adults on the autistic spectrum (about 80%).
2. Improving the quality of products by tapping the special talents of people on the spectrum, which include superior pattern recognition and attention to detail.
3. Achieving a better understanding of the customer base by employing workers who more accurately reflect the general population.
4. An autism-friendly work environment generally creates a better place for all employees to thrive.
During the conference, many great ideas and much good will were offered. These quotes were high points for me:
“Come as you are. Do what you love.” May Ellen Smith, Microsoft VP,Operations.
“Businesses need people capable of thinking differently to get out of a rut.”
“It’s time to make autism sexy.” Merry Barua, Director, Action for Autism & National Center for Autism, India.
“My dream is to have 1 million jobs by 2025” (for people on the spectrum). Dad and employer.
“I’m committed to employing people with autism for three reasons: their honesty, passion and loyalty.” Tanja Rueckert, Executive VP, SAP.
“People are disabled by perception and the environment. Both of these can change.”
“If you’ve met one person on the autistic spectrum, you’ve met one person. Each one’s unique.”
The most moving speeches of the day were given by young adults with autism, describing their experiences in the work force. The first—and saddest— graduate student, Emily Brooks, told us how she’d been forced to publicly disclose her autism at her workplace. Treated like a child, she was denied any helpful accommodations as a result of her disclosure and was repeatedly excluded from social functions. Both articulate and passionate, Ms. Brooks implored the world to “end discrimination and stereotypes that restrict our job fields, opportunities and career paths.” Amen!
The second speaker, John Hartman, an accomplished artist, jewelry maker and woodcarver, has also worked as a delivery man for a kosher deli for 10 years. Beaming with pride, he told us how much he appreciated that job. Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke of the love and support from his parents who had always believed in him. (And yes, my eyes grew moist as well).
Randy Richardson, the third speaker, is an assistant paralegal with Mayerson & Associates, the first law firm in the country dedicated to people with autism. Happily, he spoke of a supportive work environment where there were “always people around to answer his questions and help him out.” Even more happily, he added that he “just got a raise after two years.”
Will this one day event, filled with hope and encouraging words help my daughter Sarah to find a job any time soon? Maybe if she was a computer geek, or if she wanted to work in a corporate office, Sarah could send her resume to some of the employers who spoke. Unfortunately, my daughter’s talents and interests lie elsewhere— working with young children, singing, and acting. No one from the entertainment or education field was present at the UN to offer any opportunities to young adults with autism. Once again, Sarah and I find ourselves pioneering new territory. Still, it does my heart good to hope that the two mothers sitting next to me— both with fourteen year-olds on the spectrum— will reap the benefits of the ideas presented at the United Nations this year,, as more and more people gradually open their minds and hearts to the next generation of young adults on the spectrum.