5 Lessons Learned from Businesses Hiring Adults With Autism


By Manny Rodriguez, M.S. (manny@abatechnologies.com)

bSci21 Contributing Writer

June’s edition of Inc. magazine had a headline I had to read. Written by Jeff Chu, the article titled “Autism and Work: Businesses Bridge the Gap” highlights a positive trend being seen around the globe of employing adults with autism.  Earlier this year, Microsoft announced a new pilot program to hire individuals with autism.  As reported by CBS, “It’s simple, Microsoft is stronger when we expand opportunity and we have a diverse workforce that represents our customers,” said Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of worldwide operations, on the company’s blog.  From large companies like Microsoft, to small businesses highlighted in Chu’s article, this trend of employing individuals with autism lends a positive outlook for the community of people diagnosed with autism who want to work for a living.

The article by Chu highlights “a cohort of entrepreneurs who believe they may be able to address a largely unnoticed crisis: burgeoning unemployment among the fast-growing autistic-adult population.”  Chu interviewed Tom D’Eri, one of the entrepreneurs hiring adults on the autism spectrum, who was quoted in the article to say “hopefully our success will spark the broader business community to consider employing people with disabilities as a competitive advantage.” Chu references how “every year, at least 50,000 individuals with autism will enter adulthood” according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks.  Chu goes on to say how “ninety percent of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed, a rate unlikely to improve as the autistic-adult population grows.”

Chu describes that the America’s entrepreneur can meet the challenges adults with autism face, namely employment. John Robison, who sits on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, was quoted in Chu’s article to say “small businesses…hold the keys to the future for thousands of people on the spectrum.”  He further states “it’s the little businesses that have flexibility to see the opportunity in people who are different.” 

Lessons Learned

The article highlights five lessons from five businesses that have employed people with autism.  The lessons are summarized here from the original article:

Lesson 1: Know whom you’re hiring.

Traditional interviewing and hiring strategies have many pitfalls.  The job seeker who gets the job typically are those who talk a good game, present themselves as personal, well spoken, and can demonstrate the words that may land them the job.  As Chu describes, “decades of research have shown that standard interviews are poor predictors of success.”  Therefore, the first lesson offered to hiring adults with autism, but could also work for any interview in this writers opinion, is to interview through use of work samples and trial runs. 

Chu illustrates an example of a new way to interview for candidates diagnosed with autism.  A Canadian organization called Meticulon provides jobs to people on the spectrum “in software testing, database management, and online quality control.”  Following a 90-minute interview, the candidates are put through a day of testing using “six computerized quizzes gauging everything from logic to visual language.”  If the candidate achieves an average score, the “test is scored against the neurotypical populace, and they usually score one standard deviation above the norm.”  Following this initial test, the candidates continue on through “a three-week assessment process.” These series of test and trials result in scores, which are “aggregated on a grid, which the assessors then use to create…a mind map of technical and personal skills.”  The map highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the potential hire. 

Lesson 2: Create a supportive structure.

Chu writes about Rising Tide Car Wash, a scalable conveyorized car wash dedicated to the empowerment of individuals with autism.    The organization’s process acknowledges “the typical preference of those on the autism spectrum for structure.”  By taking a “step-by-step” approach, the organization has created an environment where adults with autism who thrive on structure can prosper in the workplace.  As described in the article, “a basic car wash at Rising Tide requires 39 steps on the passenger’s side, and 46 on the driver’s side.”  A supervisor is part of the experience, following each car “with a 19-step quality control check.”  Today, the organization has supported their staff by using their structured approach, enabling the organization personnel, and has even promoted their staff members diagnosed with autism to supervisory levels.  According to the founders of the organization, although they have been met with critics “who believe that autistic people should not be segregated for work – a model known as enclave,” they believe “this style of employment could be a great solution for 30-50 percent of people” with autism.

Lesson 3: Autism is not your product.

Stories have been shared before of people being inspired to do something when they meet someone with autism, or have a family member diagnosed with autism. Lee & Marie’s Cakery in Miami Beach, a café that was started by Andy Travaglia, is such a story.  Travaglaia “was inspired to start the café to employ people on the spectrum after autism was diagnosed in a close friend’s son.”  However, as Chu describes, Travaglia “had an epiphany: the business model has to come first.” 

Travaglia, like many business owners and entrepreneurs, is building a business. The “social mission” as mentioned in the article is to employ individuals on the spectrum, however the goal and vision of the company must be about the company.  When Chu asked Travaglia what advice she has for others, “she’s blunt…Autism is not a business model. The business has to be the business.  I can’t employ anyone if I don’t have a [expletive] great product.” 

Lesson 4: Keep your standards high.

For many organizations, quality is paramount.  For C.F. Martin & Company of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, quality guitars is what they sell, and they have been doing so for over 175 years.  When employing people to manufacturing a product, service the products for customers, and even create the products, ensuring quality craftsmanship is key.  Chu’s article highlights this organization, and how they partnered in the late 1990’s with Martin and Via of Lehigh Valley, a nonprofit serving people with disabilities.  Via provided coaching and facilitation in exchange for the guitar maker to hire individuals with autism.    One employee who was highlighted in the article provides a superb quality craftsmanship to his work.  His “attention to detail has made him a standout employee.”  The employee with autism is assisted by a state-funded job coach and coordinator, and has maneuvered into supporting various tasks across the organization. 

Lesson 5: Shape the job to the employee, not the employee to the job.

For those in the field of behavior analysis, the word “shape” in the article is not necessarily referring to shaping, the method using differential reinforcement of successive approximations to behavior as introduced by B.F. Skinner.  In the article, Chu highlights Words Bookstore, who employs individuals with developmental disabilities.  A quick visit to the organization’s “About Us” website highlights their mission of being “dedicated to the families in our community that have a member with a developmental disability…become a model community of inclusion through our treatment of disabled customers and employees, especially those with autism.”    

In Chu’s article, a few examples of how employees at Words are given tasks that match their strengths.  From list making, organization, sorting, and making bibliographies, the employees with developmental disabilities at Words are provided tasks that integrate their abilities to the needs of the organizations, highlighting in a way the heading of the lesson, shaping the job to the employee.  One employee who works with “on-the-spectrum trainees” is quoted to say “when you start thinking about your co-workers, you realize that everyone has their own special quirks.”

3 tools to help with Employment

Some may believe that all hiring managers can employ these lessons learned no matter if the candidate has a developmental disability or not.  However, it is important to understand how to effectively work with individuals with any disability to ensure professional success for the individual and the business.  In addition to these great lessons learned, the organization Autism Speaks is committed to helping individuals on the spectrum find employment. The organization offers three employment tools for the autism community, which can be found on their website.

The three tools are

1) An employers guide to hiring and retaining employees with autism spectrum disorders. “Written from the view of an employer that has hired numerous adults with ASD, steps are outlined for employers to use.”

2) A parents guide to employment for adults with autism spectrum disorders. “This booklet will provide guidance to family members in assisting their loved ones who are on the autism spectrum to find and maintain employment, while empowering the adult with autism.”

3) Autism in Big Business Report. “An expanding roster of large companies across the country that have made a concerted effort to publish their inclusion and diversity policies, which include people with developmental disabilities.”

In Closing…I hope it is greener on the other side

This post simply highlights the lessons learned from Chu’s article in hopes to encourage business owners to read more about this growing trend and get involved. The article ends with a bit of a reality check.  As he says clearly, “a job, of course, is no panacea.  The newly employed can meet unexpected challenges.”  Financial challenges were primarily highlighted at the end of the article, sharing a few anecdotes of individuals with autism who, by becoming employed, immediately became a sole breadwinner in their household.  Still, as business owners open their doors to employing people with developmental disabilities, and professionals working with these individuals support learning job-related skills, the opportunities to employ the growing population can be viewed as endless.   Parents, educators, business owners, and human-service practitioners, such as behavior analysts, have a great opportunity to support individuals diagnosed with autism that want to work for a living. With the right level of guidance, support, and leadership, the future looks bright for employing those who want to work.

References for your reading pleasure:

Chu, J. (2015). Autism and Work: Businesses Bridge the Gap.  Inc. Magazine, June 2015, page 34.

Microsoft set to hire people with autism.  April 7, 2015. CBS News.  Retrieved on June 25 2015 http://www.cbsnews.com/news/microsoft-to-recruit-hire-people-with-autism/?1234

Three new employment tools for the autism community.  Autism Speaks.  Retrieved on June 25 2015 https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/adult-services/three-employment-tools

The organizations highlighted in the Inc. Magazine article






About the Author:

Manny Rodriguez, M.S.

Manny Rodriguez, M.S.

Manny Rodriguez, M.S. has over ten years experience, working with organizations across the globe within the Fortune 1000. He is an accomplished practitioner in the field of Behavior Analysis, highly regarded by his customers and colleagues alike. Manny is especially skilled at facilitating business teams to execute strategic plans and preparing leaders to engage employees to reach their maximum potential. Manny holds the position of Director of Continuing Education and Product Development for ABA Technologies, a pioneer in online professional development of behavior analysts, and is also the President of the Organizational Behavior Management Network.

Manny Rodriguez and ABA Technologies, Inc provides products and services for Behavior Analysts and the general public. Online Professional Development in ABA, Coaching/Mentoring Behavior Analysts, Speaking engagements such as Workshops/Seminars/Webinars, and Expert Consulting in ABA, OBM, Instructional Design and Teaching Behavior Analysis. For more information, contact info@abatechnologies.com.

About the Author

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