The Spectrum of Success
Businesses Step Up To Welcome Employees With Autism.
by Theresa Sullivan Barger / photography by ALLEGRA ANDERSON
Dustin Atkins enjoys helping customers at his part-time job at the Simsbury Walgreens and the satisfaction of doing his job well. His job as an associate requires multitasking, including replacing weekly ad tags and working the cash register.
Only a few years ago, says Atkins, 21, he spent his junior year of high school as a virtual shut-in because he had difficulty talking to classmates. Born with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), he had to learn how to talk to others, how to make decisions quickly, and how to problem-solve, he says. He graduated from high school in 2014 and subsequently completed a local college program. He credits years of internships and on-the-job-training through Favarh, a Canton-based organization for people with disabilities, as well as Walgreens’ staffs’ experience with other employees with autism, for his success.
Atkins is one of the lucky few. Nationally, the unemployment rate among adults with ASD is estimated at 86 percent, according to the National Autism Indicators Report published by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in 2017. Underemployment rates also exceed 50 percent. (State figures were unavailable.)
ASD, a lifelong condition, is characterized by challenges with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication – and also by strengths: attention to detail, logical thinking, independent thinking, honesty and loyalty, according to Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 59 U.S. children has been identified with ASD, more than 2.5 times the one in 150 reported in 2007.
About half the people diagnosed with autism have an IQ above 70, and about half below 70, research shows. A retail or distribution center job may be too repetitive or boring for some people, and too demanding mentally or physically for others – with or without autism. As the saying goes: If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.
Internationally, parents of children with autism spark the programs and companies designed to capitalize on the strengths that people with autism bring to the workforce. The father of a son with autism created Specialisterne, a Danish software firm, as a for-profit business to draw from an untapped, overlooked resource – 75 percent of its workforce is diagnosed with ASD. Others soon followed. Germany-based SAP SE launched its Autism at Work program in 2013 and employs more than 140 people with autism. In the U.S., Microsoft, Ernst & Young, Ford, JP Morgan Chase, SAP and Walgreens have made commitments to hiring people with disabilities.
In Connecticut, with help from the state Bureau of Rehabilitation Services (BRS), Travelers launched a pilot program in early 2017 to hire people with disabilities based on employees’ advocacy. Four additional groups have been hired, says Jim McMahon, director of talent acquisition for Travelers.
Research shows that “if you structure a program properly, you’re not compromising productivity or any of your standards,” McMahon says. “We’re trying to be more inclusive in our hiring. We’re not trying to put any preconceived notions on people [with disabilities]. We’re trying to identify individuals and give them an opportunity.”
After completing a five-week training program that includes job coaching from a human services organization funded through BRS, 21 people with disabilities – most of them ASD – have been hired by Travelers and receive salary and benefit packages comparable to other employees, says Kathy Marchione, bureau chief, vocational rehabilitation program with BRS. “It’s a huge success. I’m thrilled with it,” she says.
McMahon and Marchione attended the Autism at Work summit at Microsoft’s headquarters last spring to learn from businesses that had hired people with disabilities.
“I’ve been doing this work for 30 years,” she says. “When I saw employer after employer sell this on how it makes good business sense, it felt so right.”
A GROWING PROBLEM
Parents of children with disabilities worry how their adult children will support themselves in the future, once the parents are elderly or gone. Given all their children could bring to a job, mothers express frustration with the limited number of opportunities available today.
More employers large and small will have to embrace neurodiversity (a concept where neurological differences are recognized and respected like other human variation) in the workforce in order to drive down unemployment rates. Each year, an estimated 50,000 young adults with autism age out of school-based services, according to Autism Speaks. If these adults can’t get jobs, they seek Social Security and Medicaid.
“The whole thing is going to implode because it’s just not sustainable,” says Michelle Ouimette, managing director of Roses for Autism in Guilford and director of its parent company, Ability Beyond, a service provider in Bethel. “I’ve never felt good about an 18 year old going on Social Security because he can’t get the opportunity to work. It feels good to work, to showcase your talents and be part of a team.”
Jane Thierfeld Brown, assistant clinical professor at Yale Child Study Center, says with the numbers of people with ASD becoming adults, “we don’t have enough of any kind of work for adults on the spectrum, no matter their functioning level.”
The state Department of Developmental Services offers training and supervised, sheltered work for those with disabilities, including ASD, whose IQ is below 70, but there are few programs for those with autism who have average, above average and superior intelligence. One well-respected program, Project Search, gives young adults three six-month, supervised work experiences, including social skills training. But there’s no guarantee of a job at the end, and it costs parents $35,000.
“We have tons of folks who are at the mid- to high-range of the spectrum, what used to be called high-functioning autism or Asperger’s, who have graduated from college,” says Lois Rosenwald, founder and retired executive director of Autism Services & Resources Connecticut, in Wallingford, and a long-time autism consultant. “The problem is when they graduate and try finding work. If they are working, they often end up working in jobs that don’t fit their skill set, and that’s when they can [actually] find work.”
Hartford resident Amy Langston, who is earning a master’s degree in religious studies at the Hartford Seminary, has autism and works occasionally as a freelance autism sensitivity copy editor. But she has a scant work history because the typical jobs that college and grad students work – retail and food service – would be a bad fit for her, she says.
Langston, 23, recently left a temporary administrative work-study job because the stress of the work, on top of graduate school demands, caused her health to decline. She also wanted to focus on her studies. “My condition necessitates that I have plenty of free time,” she says. “I’m still working out how I might be able to have both a job and go to school.”
At an earlier job in Virginia, a coworker became annoyed when Langston didn’t realize that a request to pick up the mail was intended as an ongoing directive, not a single day’s errand.
“Trying to get and maintain a job while having autism is hard,” says Langston, who grew up and got her bachelor’s degree in Raleigh, North Carolina. Employers look for communication and teamwork skills. “We’re often low in those kinds of skills. We’re trying to look for a workplace where we can really use our talents and live independently.”
To overcome the difficulty of face-to-face interviews, which “are one of the biggest hurdles autistics face,” Langston would like to see companies offer autistic people phone interviews. “I think that would solve many problems,” she says.
Getting a job isn’t the only challenge for people with ASD, says Brown, who is also director of College Autism Spectrum, a consultancy in college counseling and work readiness. To keep a job, people must not only do the work, but get along with coworkers, respond appropriately to their bosses and colleagues and, in some cases, interact well with customers.
Companies with successful hiring programs for people with disabilities offer internships, training programs and job coaching from a service provider such as Favarh (officially the Arc of the Farmington Valley) or mentor coaching from a coworker. Some businesses allow outside experts to provide staff training in how to work with people with ASD; training can be offered to fit the employer’s preference – either in-person or through a webinar or short video, Brown says.
Atkins, a Burlington resident, says he’s grateful he had the chance to begin as an intern at Walgreens because, when he applied for a paid job, the manager interviewing him had been a supervisor, and he knew that she was kind, easy to talk to, and understanding. During the interview, he says, he imagined talking with a relative so he could meet the manager’s eye.
“It was one of my crowning moments, getting over that fear of talking to another person,” he says.
While autism advocates bemoan the dearth of white-collar jobs, the routine and structure of distribution centers suit some adults with autism, such as Aaron Rudolph, 32. The West Hartford resident began working full time at the Walgreens Distribution Center nine years ago this November. When the center first opened, people with disabilities went through an 18-month, unpaid training program – six months in the classroom, and six months each of simulated workstations. If they passed each phase, they advanced to the next one.
Rudolph’s mom, Alison Rudolph, appreciated that her son was given the time and support to be successful, and she didn’t mind that the training was unpaid. When he wasn’t fast enough to work fulfilling stores’ order lists, a job coach helped him work in a different area.
“It’s a tight ship, but I believe it’s fair,” she says. Her son doesn’t mind the repetitive nature of the work and gets satisfaction out of keeping stores stocked. He has been given added responsibilities and has received raises, she says.
“We’re very grateful he has this job,” she says. “It does so much for him because he is contributing.”
At least 30 percent of the workforce at the Connecticut Walgreens Distribution Center has either a physical, intellectual or social disability they’ve disclosed, says Joe Wendover, corporate field inclusion manager. Businesspeople from Asia, Europe and South America visit to learn from Walgreens’ business model.
“We’re not a charity,” Wendover says. “It is tapping into a labor pool that most companies don’t include. We’ve found that when you put standards on everybody, people rise to those standards and above.” Employee loyalty and retention rates among those with ASD are high, another boost to the bottom line.
Getting hired at the Walgreens Distribution Center isn’t easy, but there are different pathways that a person with a disability can take to become a Walgreens employee. One of them is the Transitional Work Group, or TWG.
The TWG is a training program lasting for roughly 12 weeks. People with disabilities begin as temps, with on-the-job training through a human services provider that pays workers and provides job coaches. Prior to the job training, there is a one-week orientation that includes learning soft skills as well as policies and procedures. After that, there are two to three weeks of working in a simulated setting, followed by working with supervision on the warehouse floor with the permanent staff.
These days, virtually the only openings are on the third shift, which runs from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., four days a week. Many people with ASD don’t drive, so their parents drive them or they take buses. Wendover says 95 percent of the people who complete the TWG training program are hired.
Those who work in the distribution center are on their feet except during breaks, and they have to work quickly. Justin Riley, 25, didn’t make the cut, says his mother, Laura Riley, of Simsbury. Her son completed the Project Search program, where he developed work skills through a series of jobs and “a nice-looking resume and reference sheet.” It did not result in a job for him – nor did they promise it would, she said.
Walgreens made it clear that employees have to meet their standards for speed, she explains. “We heard so many good things about Walgreens, we hated not to try it, even though we knew the only openings were for the third (overnight) shift,” she says. “The people working with him and training him were great.”
The BRS staff is still working with Justin Riley to help him get a job. “The nice thing about going through BRS [is that employees] go into a job where the employer knows they have a disability and they might need a bit of training.”
People who have tried for years to get hired will work hard to keep their jobs, says Rosenwald, the autism advocate and mother of an adult son with autism. Generally speaking, she says, people with autism are loyal, dependable, thrive on routines and like to follow rules, minimizing workplace accidents and absenteeism.
“They can make wonderful employees once they learn the job, if the employer allows job coaching,” Rosenwald says.
Today’s younger workforce has grown up with people with ASD because children with autism have been mainstreamed in public schools for more than 30 years. Across the country, Brown says, advocates have been working to shift the culture beyond autism awareness to autism acceptance.
“Kids with autism grow up and they’re adults for a lot longer than they’re kids,” says Brown, a West Hartford resident whose 26-year-old son has ASD. “It’s not just about educating them; it’s about employing them and finding appropriate housing and medical care.”
Multiple studies show that millennials place a premium on feeling engaged at work. Wendover says the Windsor distribution center has high employee engagement scores because typical workers gain perspective from seeing how their coworkers with disabilities value their jobs and work hard.
Hooker Brewery’s president was so pleased with the impact employing people with disabilities had on the microbrewery’s entire staff that the Bloomfield-based company built a vocational training room so disabled workers would have a dedicated area in which to work.
“It ranges from some guys who are high functioning on the autistic spectrum to those with more severe challenges,” says Curt Cameron, president, who has been employing lower-functioning men and women for eight years. “I love these guys, plain and simple,” he says. These employees are supervised by staff from Oak Hill, a private service provider for people with disabilities.
Although it would be more cost-effective to install machinery to assemble the company’s packing materials, he notes, he wouldn’t do that. “I could never take their jobs away,” says Cameron, whose typical employees engage with workers who have disabilities, and value the interactions.
The part-time Walgreens associate, Dustin Atkins, says he loves his job and would like to work full time. He studied graphic design at Tunxis Community College and pursues his passion for illustrating graphic novels and comics when he’s not working. Even though he feels nervous trying new things, he’s been trained to help close the store. He’s glad he disclosed his autism and has befriended coworkers, who help him adjust to new challenges.
“I feel like I got lucky with this setting,” Atkins says. “There’s always going to be that one person who understands. When that happens, people with autism can find comfort in the workplace.”