By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — To combat high rates of unemployment among autistic individuals, mental health organizations statewide are connecting them to job opportunities — or even hiring them directly.
No reliable source tracks employment rates for adults with autism, according to Autism NOW, a national information center. Employment statistics generally fail to identify specific groups like those on the autism spectrum.
However, using results from a U.S. Department of Education study of youth who received special education services, the center suggested that young adults with autism are less likely to work than most other disability groups.
Thirty-three percent of young adults in the study with autism spectrum disorders had a paid job, compared to 59 percent for all disabled respondents.
Northern Transitions, a nonprofit community rehabilitation organization in Sault Ste. Marie, hires people with autism to assist with janitorial work and help with the county recycling service run through the organization.
The nonprofit connects people to jobs with local businesses as well. For example, Northern Transitions partners with the famed Soo Locks, placing autistic individuals into janitorial jobs around the park and supplying summer staff for its visitors’ center.
“Some people just come in the door — you know, ‘Hey, I’m a person with a disability and I’m looking for a job,’” said Karl Monroe, Northern Transitions’ rehabilitation director. “Some people we hire and some people we send to a job developer that works with about 40 companies down here and does placements.”
People with autism can bring unique skills to the workplace, Monroe said. Although autism can severely impact one’s social skills, it also often comes with an increased level of concentration and attention to detail.
Monroe told of an individual who found a grocery store job through Northern Transitions’ employment program and began to spot things most other employees simply skipped over.
“He’s noticing stuff that needs to be thrown away — which is not something that the boss appreciates,” Monroe said, tongue in cheek. “He’s the only person they have who always pays attention to the expiration dates.”
To better prepare people with autism for the workplace, the state has to start with fixing its special education system, said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who chairs the Michigan Special Education Reform Task Force and has a daughter with autism.
“Now, even though we expect much more mainstreaming of kids with disabilities into general education settings, just putting a kid in a classroom is not really inclusion unless you have expertise on staff,” Calley said. “You can be as isolated in the classroom as you were if you’re not in the classroom if the student is not supported the way they need to be supported.”
“Our special education — we have to do better with that. If we do, I think it will open up more employment opportunities,” he said.
In 2012, Calley championed autism insurance legislation that eventually became law. It mandated that insurance policies cover applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.
While Monroe said he sees value in such services for managing the symptoms of autism, there’s less clarity about whether they impact career readiness.
Autism affects people in such diverse ways — from self-injury and speech difficulties in severe cases, to delayed social skills in more high-functioning individuals — that an autistic person’s success in employment depends more on the individuals and the field of work they end up in, he said.
Not all employers are equipped to hire autistic individuals, however — especially ones with more severe symptoms. Even if individuals are prepared with the skills necessary to enter the workforce, finding an employer with the resources to accommodate their other needs is a separate challenge.
While the federal Rehabilitation Act prohibits employment discrimination based on disability, federal law also says employers don’t have to accommodate disabilities if doing so would cause “significant difficulty or expense” for the employer.
There’s no formula by which employers can figure out what would constitute “significant difficulty,” said Mark Cody, the legal director for the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, although the size of a company is one consideration.
“The cost of the hardship for a small company of 20 or 25 employees is going to have a bigger impact than a place like General Motors,” Cody said.
However, Cody said the law is generally tailored to both employer and employee needs. Treating the accommodations process as a continuing conversation can give potential employees the best shot at securing a job, while protecting employers from discrimination suits.
Autistic individuals seeking employment would be best served by submitting their request in writing and having a “give-and-take discussion” with the employer about what exactly they need on the job to perform their essential duties, Cody said.
“There’s a fair degree of flexibility, and it can work well for both employer and employee,” Cody said. “If the employer is too bureaucratic or too rigid, that’s where they tend to get into trouble because they don’t really work with the employee to figure out what needs to be done.”
Northern Transitions’ Monroe said employment is a quality-of-life matter for people with autism, and overcoming the many barriers to their employment is almost always a positive.
“I think you’d have a lot more happy persons with disabilities if more of them were employed,” Monroe said. “When you identify yourself, I think most people start out with what they do for a living.
“There are a lot of values to work besides a check.”