Many with autism are college-educated, holding degrees in anything from engineering to science to mathematics to foreign languages, sometimes with honors or distinctions. Yet up to 90 percent of adults with autism experience unemployment or underemployment.
Some corporations, nonprofits, and social enterprises are fighting this norm by hiring and empowering adults with autism in their workplaces. The operations benefit as well, because people on the neurodiverse spectrum can often see the details that others cannot, like inefficiencies in processes that could cost a company time or money.
Employing the neurodiverse workforce is not only good for business, but great for society, as well. The foundation of a moral society is human dignity, including the right to productive work.
Catholic social teaching holds that God made every individual in His image and likeness. As St. John Paul II expresses, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are.”
We could learn a lot from businesses and nonprofits that respect and empower those with autism as members of the workplace, because shouldn’t we treat each other as valued in all aspects of life?
Pioneers in neurodiverse hiring
Some finance, automobile, technology, and data companies actively recruit neurodiverse talent, which includes individuals with autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and social anxiety disorders.
As reported in a 2017 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, the businesses have initiated programs that offer the workers accommodations like an assigned buddy or headphones to minimize auditory overstimulation.
The data application corporation SAP has the longest running neurodiverse program among major corporations, and it’s only four years old. The company reported to HBR that since initiating the effort, they’ve experienced productivity gains, quality improvement, and boosts in innovative capabilities.
At SAP, they’ve included accommodating support to empower adults with autism in their positions. Work support circles include “a team manager, a team buddy, a job and life skills coach, a work mentor, and an HR business partner.” Some of these partners are employees on the same work team and others are from partner social service organizations.
Building a business for, and with, adults with autism
Chris Tidmarsh, 29, didn’t have trouble in school, in large part because of accommodations available to him. He earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, environmental studies, and French.
But acclimating to the “real world” was a different story.
A few months after being hired as an environmental researcher, his employer let him go. Directions were communicated verbally, and Chris does better receiving instructions visually, like through emails or texts.
“I never imagined how hard it would be,” he explains in an email interview. “My college had always put accommodations into place to help me succeed, especially because my learning style was different than neurotypical students.”
When Chris lost his job, he and his mom Jan Pilarski came to realize how widespread the unemployment problem was for adults with autism.
“My mom had the idea that we could start up an urban farming business for me and other people on the autism spectrum, because it’s so hard to find employment. We thought it might be a good idea to start something of our own.”
Investor interest in social enterprises
Others saw promise in Jan and Chris’s business model and invested in the social enterprise.
In 2015, Chris and Jan, whose career was spent in social justice efforts, launched Green Bridge Growers. They started GBG with a 400-square-foot prototype greenhouse at Hannah and Friends, a nonprofit organization in South Bend, Indiana, for people with special needs.
Now, GBG is ready for business, with paid employees. No more prototype farm. The business hired six adults with autism and has expanded to two locations. The non-profit grows organic produce in greenhouses and a hoop house through the use of aquaponics, an integrated farming method where fish and plants depend on each other to grow.
“Aquaponics and other sustainable methods of farming are a great skill-match for individuals with autism because these practices rely on precision, observation, and an attention to detail,” Jan says.
The new property includes a 2,000-square-foot greenhouse with vertical growing towers and a similarly-sized hoop house, with polyfill plastic sides that can be rolled up. During the warm months, this allows fresh air to get to the rows of crops planted in the soil.
“We’re able to grow plants for a longer period than you would outside,” he responds, noting the region’s harsh winters.
“It’s almost year-round,” adds Jan. “We’ve learned through research there are a great number of greens or special crops that you plant in the fall. They are dormant in the winter, and then they pop up in February and start growing. That’s pretty much year-round growing.”
They’ve also seen how those with autism can blossom in the workplace when given the chance.
“Our staff is so good at things like research, monitoring our plants and fish, our daily tasks, even handling a lot of the science behind this. Chris regularly tests pH in the water and the soil,” says Jan.
Teaching workforce skills to young people with autism
In the marketing industry for 30+ years, another mom, Marjorie Madfis felt it was time to give back to the business world, and to her daughter, Izzy, 21, who is on the autism spectrum. So in 2014, she opened Girl AGain, an American Girl resale store in White Plains, New York, that serves as a training workplace model for young women with autism.
She explained to The Mighty, “American Girl dolls are my daughter’s passion.”
Girl AGain is part of Madfis’ nonprofit organization Yes She Can, Inc. About 10 trainees, ages 18 to 23, come to the White Plains, New York store for at least two hours of training per week for about a year. Job coach volunteers, who are trained psychologists and social workers, help them see how their skills fit into the work environment.
Madfis told CBS New York, “We need to teach businesses and support businesses to encourage them to employ people on the spectrum.”
The right thing to do
As companies work to reverse this norm and empower adult with autism, we at Grotto extend our challenge beyond the workplace.
Take time to get to know a person who is neurodiverse. Don’t we all feel valued when someone takes a moment to find out how we’re doing?
Offering work and acceptance to those with autism meets the call of Pope Francis to “break down the isolation and stigma that burden” people with autism.
And, it is simply the right thing to do.