Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Good Kind of Autism Awareness

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A business columnist for my local newspaper has written a column urging employers to think about hiring autistic workers. She starts out by describing the good things about autistic workers: we're diligent, honest, thorough and don't mind doing repetitive tasks. Then she goes on to mention how badly autistic people need jobs: many of us can work, but have trouble convincing prospective employers to hire us, and, at the same time, many of us are ineligible for disability benefits or services. I appreciated seeing an autism-awareness article in the mainstream media that focused on autistic adults, and quality-of-life issues, rather than the usual hype about the epidemic of autism among schoolchildren.

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, Kansas City Star workplace columnist Diane Stafford has written what I think is actually a really helpful article!

Since the main focus of her column is jobs and job hunting, she's decided to raise awareness of a) the great difficulty autistic people face in getting hired, even when they can work, and b) the benefits to prospective employers of hiring autistic workers.
Pool of Talent Shouldn't Be Overlooked
The Kansas City Star

Do you need a worker who pays attention to detail? Who will do tedious data entry? Who won't waste time gossiping?

You might find that you need someone with autism or Asperger's syndrome.

This is National Autism Month. Advocates have geared up to share sobering statistics about the increasing numbers of children with the diagnosis, 1 in 110.

Adults with autism or its milder form, Asperger's, have a hard time finding jobs these days. What will the jobless rate be for that group when the children who have autism try to become employed?

"As it is now, lots of people with autism or Asperger's are looking for full-time jobs, but their gifts are not recognized," says Sean Swindler, director of community program development at the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training.

"Our challenge is finding jobs that fit them."

Swindler tells of a successful job placement: A man with autism works in a bank, running cash from the tellers' windows to the vaults.

"He deals in very black-and-white thinking," Swindler explains. "He's absolutely honest. He has very strong attention to detail. When he's handed the money it will go into the vault. Always."

Others are great at computer work.

But when advocates for hiring such individuals visit with employers, they often run into stumbling blocks.

Groups such as Swindler's try to educate.

"People with these disabilities who are leaving school now are not expecting to be in sheltered workshop environments," Swindler says. "They're expecting to be a full member in the community, the way their education has prepared them to be."

But vocational rehabilitation money, which funds job coaches who train and place people with disabilities in the workplace, is in desperately short supply, a victim of pared-down state budgets.

"We have people on the waiting list for seven years," Swindler says of those wanting job support services. "They sit in their parents' houses for years, losing all the skills they were taught in school."

Furthermore, he notes, about half the people with Asperger's or autism don't qualify for state-funded disability services, "so they're completely on their own in the job market."

In a tight job market, it's hard to advocate for special cases, but it's something that must be done, or lots of tax dollars are wasted and talents lost.
The article is not perfect --- it does perpetuate the myth that there are a lot more autistic children being born and entering school now than there have ever been before (when really they are just getting diagnosed earlier and at higher rates), and hints that some sort of crisis may be brewing when these aforementioned hordes of autistic children grow up and begin to apply for jobs --- but it does a great job of calling attention to a real problem that lots of autistic adults have (though it should be pointed out that the actual unemployment rate among autistic people is, while still higher than the unemployment rate for the general population, probably not as high as most studies estimate it, since those studies tend to select participants who were diagnosed with autism at younger ages --- sometimes in childhood --- and also tend to recruit through disability programs, both of which things are less likely to be true for people whose ASDs do not greatly impair their ability to find jobs) and that much mainstream Autism Awareness campaigns ignore, in favor of pushing for earlier, more intensive behavioral treatment.

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