Op-Ed: Bringing the autistic into the workplace

“Is there a job for me?” could be the refrain of the nation’s burgeoning cadre of autistic individuals. Their ranks are growing. Since 2000, the prevalence rate of autism in children has nearly tripled from 0.67 percent to 1.85 percent or one in 54 among 8-year-old children.*

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and the theme of the Autism Society of America this year has shifted from Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance in an effort to better help people, including families, acknowledge the presence of autism and the need to act swiftly and do something constructive. One way, the Autism Society says, is through job opportunities.

“Employment is a major initiative for the Autism Society, as we advocate for more employment opportunities across all sectors, and push employers to realize that a neuro-diverse workforce is simply better business. Adaptability and a supportive work environment are some of the pillars needed for successful integrated employment,” according to Kristyn Roth, chief marketing director for the Society.

Unemployed or Underemployed

Many companies in the top tier of the Fortune 100 and beyond are working to place young autistic people in jobs. However, Nicole Thornton, senior field director of Autism Speaks, cites data showing that “most autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed, despite having the skill sets and expertise to excel in the workplace.” In fact, 81 percent of adults with autism, intellectual and/or developmental differences in the U.S. do not have a paid job in the community, according to National Core Indicators.

Autism Speaks, Best Buddies and Special Olympics, in partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation, teamed up last year to launch Delivering Jobs, “a campaign dedicated to equipping people with autism, intellectual and/or developmental differences with the resources and skills needed for employment and leadership opportunities.”

One interesting organization whose history speaks to an important instance when autism and the workplace came together is Ken’s Krew. The Ken is philanthropist Kenneth Langone, who not only gave The Home Depot its start but also was instrumental in placing the first group of autistic workers in a Home Depot store in Pennsylvania 23 years ago.

Langone happened to know the father of a family whose child had a disability (not autism) and who wanted to work after graduating high school, according to Jennifer McAleese, executive director of Ken’s Krew. Since then, Ken’s Krew, which works with The Home Depot, CVS, and other employers, supports some 477 autistic workers throughout their employment years. The success of the Krew was featured in a recent issue of Forbes.

“They Teach Us So Much”

For The Home Depot store managers, the influx of autistic workers has been a revelation. Patricia Mauldin, an Associate Support Department Supervisor at The Home Depot store in Coconut Grove, Fla., says that her seven employees with disabilities placed by the Krew “teach us so much and they enhance the customer experience.”

She notes how over the past two years, one of her best young workers has become “much more vocal,” an important achievement for the autistic. She even has a short video of the young man confidently driving the Ballymore, a device that allows workers to take down items from high shelves. These traits and confidence levels don’t always pop up on day one, of course, and the Ken’s Krew workers benefit from a six-week training program, headed by Ilana Solomon in Northern Florida, who feels “training autistic workers is basically no different than doing the same with non-autistic employees.”

This quick overview of the issues facing the autistic and their families shows that much is being done by both the public and private sectors to help autistic people enter the American workplace. What’s more, there could be even larger advances ahead.

Could Be a Breakthrough

The parent of an autistic child has highlighted how the tectonic shift toward working from home during COVID-19 could be a breakthrough for the autistic community. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Samuel observed that “By normalizing remote work for everybody, the pandemic has made it easier for people who don’t adapt well to office environments to thrive. The longtime resistance to supporting remote accommodations for disabled employees evaporated when neurotypical people had to work from home.

“At the same time, the growing awareness of neurodiversity — the idea that humans aren’t all wired the same way, and that differences like autism and ADHD also come with unique strengths — means there is more appreciation for what neurodivergent employees can contribute.”

Samuel also notes how the introduction of new communication technology, like Teams and Slack, “replace hallway conversations or office drop-ins, they remove a major obstacle for people who struggle with distraction or social interaction.”

The hope is that, eventually, we will see more neurodiverse people in a variety of business settings, including in the physical Home Depots of the world, and their compatriots at home, all contributing to the economy, gaining experiences and new skills, and enjoying a fuller life.

*The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)