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Jobs For The Autistic

Rebroadcast: originally broadcast December 3, 2012.

They’re growing up.  They need work.  A life.  Maybe work the rest of us might fail at.

Specialisterne Consultants at work. (Specialisterne)

Specialisterne Consultants at work. (Specialisterne)

More and more Americans are being diagnosed with autism. One in 88 American children is the latest figure.  It’s been called a tsunami.

They will grow up and they will have lives to lead. But what kind of lives? And what about work?

A new push is on to recognize and apply the special talents, special character, of people with autism in the workplace. To structure jobs that autistic minds and temperaments may be especially good at. To find the workplace upside in autism.

This hour, On Point: the autism advantage, at work.

-Tom Ashbrook


Gareth Cook, a columnist for the Boston Globe, his article in the Sunday New York Times is The Autism Advantage.

Thorkil Sonne, CEO and Founder of Specialisterne, which employs 35 people with autism as consultants to 19 companies in Denmark.

Randy Lewis, senior vice president of distribution and logistics, Walgreens.

Leslie Long, director of Adult Services for Autism Speaks.

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times “When Thorkil Sonne and his wife, Annette, learned that their 3-year-old son, Lars, had autism, they did what any parent who has faith in reason and research would do: They started reading. At first they were relieved that so much was written on the topic. “Then came sadness,” Annette says. Lars would have difficulty navigating the social world, they learned, and might never be completely independent. The bleak accounts of autistic adults who had to rely on their parents made them fear the future.”

NBC News “Nationwide, only 35 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities had full- or part-time jobs in 2004, according to a survey by the National Organization on Disability. People without disabilities had an employment rate of 78 percent; in Anderson County, it is closer to 90 percent, according to county economic development figures.”

Washington Post “‘Next year, I turn 18 and I am in your [district],’ Fleischmann said to the senior senator during an October gathering hosted by the Nantucket Project, ‘How do I, someone with autism, pick the candidate that is right for me when a lot of the candidates don’t keep their word?’”

Nantucket Project Panel discussion on autism, moderated by Tom.

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  • Shag_Wevera

    Especially important in a materialistic society that seems to have a little less compassion every day. Cerainly can’t provide a “safety hammock” for those “lazy” autistics.

    • dust truck

      that’s why I’m glad I live in Massachusetts: at least the Tea Party is relatively weak here. At least the “leeching” children, impaired, injured, ill, people with down syndrome, autism, MS, etc. won’t die from starvation or lack of medical care.

      • Andrew K

        I live in Massachusetts too and my brother has Downs. The support he gets from the State is a lifesaver for him and my family.

  • keltcrusader

    This definately has me concerned as my youngest son has ADHA & PDD/NOS (PERVASIVE DEVELOPEMENTAL DISORDER – NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED- on the autism spectrum which also includes Aspergers). He is just starting HS and although he has done well in school in the past with some support (middle school was not as well equipped to handle this as elementary was and it wasn’t a very fun 3 years!), we worry what the future will bring. College seems like it might not be attainable, but how will he make it in the real world with his social and learning delays without a solid education?? Plus at 5’10″ at 15 and handsome, people assume he is older than he is and seem stunned when he has real problems interacting with them. He is quite intelligent, but that is hard to get across when you won’t look someone in the eye when speaking to them or have a hard time trying to understand what they are trying to convey. Big worries!!

    • creaker

      It won’t get him through everything (especially when things go off script), but rote skills and rules (if someone says hi, you say hi, look at the person you’re listening to and to the person you are talking to, if someone does something for you say thank you, if someone says thank you say you’re welcome, etc) can help a lot. Even if someone never internalizes this stuff, having “the rules” very specifically spelled out and practiced can help in social interactions.

      • keltcrusader

        Trust me, we have been working on this since he was a little kid and, although he is miles better than he used to be, new situations still throw him off. He is polite and will say hi, but making eye contact, which for most people is a given, is still difficult extremely for him.

        • creaker

          Keep at it – a lot of young adults with autism hit a learning spurt in their late teens to early 20′s where they can make big improvements in skills.

          • viacarrozza

            This is exactly what happened to my son who is now 27. I could NOT see much improvement during his teen years at all…It was overwhelming! He has since made a huge leap in social awareness and learns by rote, often calling me in order to unravel the labyrinth of social nuance.

          • keltcrusader

            This gives me hope! He was voted quietest kid in 8th grade, not surprising. We sometimes see glimmers of him coming out of his shell, hopefully it will increase as he gets older.

    • 1Brett1

      And adolescence is such a time to be awkward and self-conscious, as well as miscuing on social cues even for someone “neurotypical.” Some of the things he practices now and seems to not be making much progress with will become more integrated in his daily life in his mid-twenties on.

  • Tom Jackson

    It’s “people with autism” not “the autistic.” Language matters!

    • Gary Trees

      With all due respect to your sensitivity; the language used was obviously not intended to offend. Truth be told, I don’t see how this is offensive to begin with.

      • fmw

        lots of literature out there on “people-first language” and it makes a whole lot of sense. the difference is that autism does not wholly define or circumscribe people. they are PEOPLE with autism.

        • dust truck

          it’s true and it makes sense, but it is a new concept to many people, there is no point getting angry about it. Instead just help educate.

          • fmw

            absolutely (educate, not get angry)

          • 1Brett1

            See my reply above to Tom Jackson.

        • 1Brett1

          See my reply to Tom Jackson.

    • 1Brett1

      I debated which person to respond to, so I went to the top person who started this thread. I have about thirty-five years experience in human services with many years experience specifically providing services to autistic people. I was taught to use person-first language professionally. I still use it. However–and this is a big however–not all people with autism prefer person first language. Most don’t, in fact. This is also true of people with myriad other so-called disabilities. In fact, there is quite a movement (has been for over a decade), initiated by self advocacy groups, that does not want the use of person-first language to be the norm.

      Most people with autism do not wish to view their autism as some sort of thing they have, an affliction, a disorder, a disability, etc., but an inherent part of who they are as people. They prefer, “I am autistic,” “an autistic person,” etc. I don’t particularly care for the way this forum put in its heading, “the autistic,” personally; but, as far as language “mattering,” person-first language is passé for autistic people. I also don’t particularly like the term “neurotypical,” either, but that is also a phrase in fashion right now (used by autistics to describe people who are not autistic).

      My rule is to call people what they prefer. If I sense a person prefers person-first language, or if I am writing on a forum where people have little experience with autism, I use person-first language. When I am speaking to an autistic person, I tend to use disability-first language (if at all; really, neither has much use, as far as treating people as individuals). If I am unsure, I’ll ask. People with so-called disabilities tend to at least prefer a discussion of the issue before they would prefer a presumption that person-first language is the proper form.

      • fmw

        obviously when you are talking about individuals, it should be what a person and like any other group you will find a range within the community of what people prefer to be called.

        • 1Brett1

          Yes, obviously, but what I wrote is more than about speaking to an individual. And, it is also true that there are different schools of thought, as it were, within any community.

          However, your comments below seem very emphatic that person-first language is the proper default position and people should be educated to use it, and that simply is not true. The movement that wishes to eradicate person-first language is a very important one and one that advocates for autism to be viewed as a normal, inherent part of a person’s identity.

        • HonestDebate1

          I find when talking to individuals with autism, they prefer to be called by their name so I just go with that.

  • geraldfnord

    I came in late so this might have already been said: “If you’ve seen one person with autism you’ve seen one.” I would add: “…on that day.” (One can be very high-functioning when the energy level is high; some other days, though….)

    • Michele

      Isn’t that true of all people?

  • debhulbh

    My experience is of a bright, engaging, thoughtful, insightful, thinking little boy who gets to the heart of the matter always and in all things with empathy, great heart and kindness and more. My little boy -namely my grandson – who I have been raising for 5 years now, is a high functioning little boy (age 7 now)….I did not take him for a diagnosis, although the doctor hinted when he was 3 yrs old….instead I have spent the last 5 years one on one attending to, working with, fostering his unique amazing perspective, raising his talents in the eyes of teacher who thought that he was different but couldn’t quite put their finger on it and who try to make him conform.
    My special precious little boy sees the world in pictures, has amazing abilities, he is very diverse in his interests, animation lego compilations in a class he has just taken for 10 yr olds and loved it, composing piano pieces (tells me this is the way Bach and Beethoven did it…??) is interested and connected to nature, animals, the planets, has a theory about the sun, planets, magnetism, what holds up the sun and planets that is mind boggling….
    His ‘weakness” are not what we the lesser can possibly understand, I cannot judge his brilliance from my smaller understanding…I can only hold this precious soul in my hands and try to do the absolute best that I can within my environment, my skills. He and I connect with the heart and that is all that truly matters.
    He is an amazing young man….he speaks of inventions…
    Adults don’t get him, kids sometimes pick on him, he is such good person, and is very intelligent.
    Thats my grandson….
    I am realizing only from listening to your program me that my lil man has what some people like to label as a negative…
    I put no labels on my darling only to say that he is amazing.
    Drives me crazy trying to get him dressed in the morning…he is trying to solve major things and I am trying to get him to put on his socks…. but he is truly amazing..
    and we are blessed for having him in our lives each and every day…..

    • sickofthechit

      Have you thought of asking him whether he likes a particular outfit, then buying multiples of it? It was good enough for Steve Jobs….charles a. bowsher

      • debhulbh

        I like that!… I will ask him. he doesn’t care about what he wears though (which is good). It is just that he can’t take the time to get it on himself as he is thinking thinking thinking about much more important things than getting dressed… He has much more important work to do….like solving planetary problems..
        Precious :)

  • JBK007

    I expect the overall job market and weak economy will hinder any kind or large-scale integration of people with autism into the workforce. In conjunction with that, there is less manufacturing in the US, so people who have strong same-task focus skills have less options. Lastly, which employers will opt to bring in challenging and needy employees, with special training and potentially higher health care costs, over automating their factories?

  • 2Gary2

    stop doing repeats. New stuff only. Lazy.

  • RonShirtz

    With my experience with those with autism, I’m reminded of the TV show Monk, where he often says his investigative skills are both a blessing and a curse. Those within the autism spectrum often face challenges with sensory overload and awkwardness in social situations. But many of them excel with razor sharp focus in narrow topics of interest. This makes them prime candidates as specialists in many professional fields.

    Though their timing and delivery is often something left to be desired, the integrity and blunt honesty of those with autism is refreshing. They often cut to the chase and call a spade a spade, while everyone else pretends the emperor has no clothes on. As it is difficult for them to lie convincingly, they would make trustworthy candidates for political office, especially compared to our present politicians with glib tongues who say one thing and do another. I can see them doing sterling work as detail-orientated inspectors and serving on independent oversight committees.

  • 1Brett1

    Resources tend to become thin, even non-existent once a person graduates from high school. This must change.

  • tbphkm33

    I am struck by the reality that the media is missing one glaring point about autistics in the workforce – namely that there already are a number of autistics already out there. Higher functioning individuals who have learned coping mechanisms that allows them to function almost undetected in society. We probably have all encountered them, those socially awkward individuals who are yet brilliant in what they do.

    It really makes you wonder how many leaders in industry, especially the tech industry, if they were tested, would actually place on the autism spectrum. It takes a drive and commitment to be an innovator or a leader, my bet is that some of societies greatest minds owe part of their talent and success to autism.

    As autistics become mainstreamed as a highly talented group in the workforce, I suspect there will be a lot more support than we might believe. If anything, the failure of U.S. education, in the push to standardized testing, has shown us that not everyone learns the same way. It is a failure business can ill afford to replicate. If a socially awkward individual is much better at a job, why in the world would you not hire that individual? Much better than the smooth talking, but mediocre employee who drinks too much at company events and strives to sleep around with coworkers.

    • Sy2502

      You are considering only one side of the equation, that is being good at your job. But being employed is much more than that. It also includes following directions, working with others, and the all important and often neglected “communication skills”. I worked in Engineering for a decade, and have come across several of the people you describe, very intelligent but socially inept, who do the work they want instead of what’s needed, and can’t work with others. Let me assure you I’d rather work with less brilliant but still competent people who have more of the “complete package”.

      • tbphkm33

        What you mention are really management issues, a good manager will be able to work around those issues. If not, it is another person who really has no business being a manager (plenty of those around).

        I once had a data analyst reporting to me. She was brilliant, but suffered from severe social phobia. Uncomfortable with people even coming into her office. So we made 90% of her interaction via e-mail, worked out perfect. She was at least twice as efficient as others, so as a reward, I made a conscious effort to periodically let her leave in the early afternoon. No better reward for her. Sure other’s were jealous, but everyone knew she worked harder than anyone else in the company.

        Let me assure you, I would much rather work with the brilliant and socially awkward, than the “competent” mediocrity that clogs up offices throughout the U.S.

        • Sy2502

          It is not, unfortunately, just management issue. When someone in the team has communication, social, and cooperation issues, the whole team has to deal with it. I have dealt with autism spectrum people who simply would not and could not share their knowledge with others when needed. That is a big problem. Others have very abrasive personalities, which makes interactions stressful and put people on the edge. For this to work it takes a very strong and concerted effort from everybody to accommodate the difficult individual, with the knowledge that this person’s behavior will not improve. Ever. And work is hard and stressful enough without adding to it. As one who’s had to do it, I can say I’d rather not do it again. Also “competence” and “mediocrity” have nothing in common, so I don’t understand why you conflated them.

  • 1Brett1

    Thanks, Chris; well said.

  • margbi

    Are you ever right about the lack of accommodation which corporations are prepared to provide to almost any prospective employee, let alone one with special needs. I have a son on the spectrum (Aspergers) and he had been employed with a small business owner who was able and willing to work with his needs. Now that person has gone out of business and my son is faced with the (for him) awful task of “selling” himself to a generally uncaring world.

  • Taylor G

    It is interesting that as autism becomes more widely understood and diagnosed, as does ADHD and other, similar disorders.

    I think a good question to ask is that as society changes, why are people being born with less aptitude for emotional intelligence and a more specialized skillset? As those with ADHD get older and enter the workforce, what jobs will they do compared to the detial-oriented autistic employees?

    Perhaps this is a fundamental broadening of the type of human that exists, as our tools become more advanced and specialized, so do we.

  • draxtor

    What comes to mind is the creative virtual world Second Life where a lot of stunning work is being done with autism folks = http://www.slideshare.net/Milton.Broome/autism-and-aspergers-in-second-life

  • HonestDebate1

    I so appreciated the idea that Mr, Sonne was not a charity but a businessman. The last thing anyone needs, autistic or not, is sympathy.

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