Integrate Autism Employment Advisors connects employers with young professionals affected by autism
Dylan Mah, 23, has been looking for a lab technician or research assistant job in Manhattan since he graduated with a degree in cellular microbiology in 2015. Breaking into such a competitive field is already difficult, but he finds the interview process especially nerve-wracking with autism.
“The most difficult part is, honestly, just talking to people,” he says. “It makes me anxious to put myself out there. I really do not like rejection, but I have been, repeatedly.”
There will be 500,000 adults on the autism spectrum aging into adulthood over the next 10 years. Yet a whopping 85% of college grads affected by autism are unemployed, compared to the national unemployment rate of 4.5%.
Peter, 29, who declined to give his last name, feels this pain. “It can be difficult to interview, because it’s hard to come off as natural and professional at the same time,” says Peter, who dreams of being an NYC librarian. “I have a degree in library science. I know how the Dewey decimal system works, but it can be hard for me to sell that to an employer.”
That’s where Integrate Autism Employment Advisors – formerly the Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership (ASTEP) – steps in. The program provides job coaching boot camps and networking opportunities for young professionals on the spectrum. But it also consults with employers to encourage hiring and retaining adults with autism.
“I saw that for individuals [with autism] transitioning into adulthood, there was a real falling off in support and services,“ says Marcia Scheiner, the mother of a 26-year-old son on the autism spectrum, who founded ASTEP/Integrate in 2010. “I wanted to bridge the gap between understanding how employers think and operate, and this largely untapped talent pool that brings tremendous skills to the workplace.”
The company changed its name ahead of National Autism Awareness Month in April because Asperger Syndrome was folded under the umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder a few years ago. “We wanted to refresh our message and make it clear to the marketplace that what we’re really working on is integrating college grads on the autism spectrum into competitive employment,” explains Scheiner.
While 35% of 18-year-olds with autism go to college, advancing their education actually makes their job prospects worse than if they’d stopped at a high school diploma. Those grads who do land jobs are often settling for part-time, minimum wage positions.
“The problem is, most vocational placement services are in low-skill jobs. They’re behind in helping individuals with autism get introduced to professional, entry-level positions,” says Scheiner. “If you get out of college with a science degree, your dream job is not coming out and working in food service, or stocking shelves for minimum wage.”
That’s the problem that Pete found at his first library page gig in Queens. “It was book shelving, organizing books, moving stacks around – and they explicitly told me that they didn’t want me helping customers in finding items,” he says. “They weren’t using my talents, and that’s always been something frustrating.”
In fact, many characteristics found in some adults with autism lend themselves to great success in the workplace, including: having excellent rote memory, being extremely focused; being innovative; following rules and routine; attention to detail and accuracy; and being honest and loyal.
But those same traits can be double-edged sword on the job hunt. Integrate member Adam, 24, who also declined to give his last name, admits being so detail-oriented makes writing cover letters and resumes difficult when applying to accounting firms. “I overthink it, and I keep changing it up. I get anxious about whether it’s saying the right thing,” he said. “So resume-writing and cover letter help is something the Integrate program helps me with. This group really has given me more confidence, and motivation to keep pushing forward.”
The biggest problem is that the job interview process is so focused on socialization and communication skills, which puts many adults with autism at a disadvantage. They may not answer questions the way employers want because they have trouble understanding the nuances of questions. They may give too much information – sharing their entire life history if you say, “tell me about yourself.” Or they may answer a yes-or-no question that’s supposed to be open-ended with a literal “yes” or “no” answer.
Some struggle with making direct eye contact, or they will take a two or three-second pause before answering a question, which can be off-putting in an interview. “So these and other behaviors common to adults with autism may be a red flag for employers who don’t understand, especially if the candidate does not disclose that they have autism,” says Scheiner. “And these qualified candidates don’t get past the first interview.”
And once they are hired, they struggle to hold onto jobs. “They get fired for making social missteps at work,” says Scheiner. “They don’t necessarily understand the political environment, or they may say or do things that other people [without autism] would naturally observe that you don’t do.” She suggested that someone on the spectrum might literally take an “open-door policy” to mean they can walk into the CEO’s office whenever they want, for example
That’s why Integrate is also working with the employers looking to fill jobs with neurodiverse workers, so that each party understands what the other one needs to thrive. “We find that one of the most powerful ways to engage and educate employers is to introduce them to groups of college students and graduates on the autism spectrum,” says Scheiner, whose program counts the Disney/ABC Television Group, LinkedIn, Merck and Barclays Capital among its autism-friendly corporate partners.
And once an Integrate member is placed in a job position, the program also provides support by following up with the company and the candidate for three months. “What’s really interesting is that after we work with employers to develop management strategies to work with someone on the spectrum, most ultimately find that it didn’t require that much more management time,” she says. “In fact, they find that they become better managers of all of their employees by becoming clearer and more effective communicators.”
There’s still much work to be done, but the current crop of Integrate candidates is optimistic.
“This group really has given me more confidence, and motivation to keep pushing forward,” says Adam.
Brian Schwanwede, 26, a freelance video editor trying to break into the film industry, agrees that his future is looking brighter thanks to Integrate.
“I’ve been able to enhance my networking ability, and that is something I wish I could have had long before,” he says. “I like to think this program has given me a fighting chance.”
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