The Employment Shift: rethinking autism employment initiatives

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Think of a 1 in 68 prevalence number in a nation of 318.9 million, then take the working ages between 18-69 and then enact the 75-85% unemployment number…

By Michael John Carley

Over the last five years, many new non-profits (and for-profits with consciences) have formed to answer the 75-85% unemployment rate endured by adults on the autism spectrum. Furthermore, these fledgling autism organizations–addressing only our employment issues–are not “trees falling in the forest” that make no noise: This new breed of micro-charity is getting the positive media attention it deserves.

But realistically…can they cause a dent to that 75-85% number? Is it fair to instill such optimism in roughly 2.5 million of out-of-work spectrumites,* and their families…if the greater truth states that these orgs will not be able to enact anywhere near the kind of improvement they might be unwillingly promising?

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For starters, this column should not read as criticism of those orgs. The Non-Pareil Institute, UltraTesting, Specialisterne USA, (my old stomping grounds of) ASTEP, Aspiritech, and many others were founded, and are run by people who are trying to create entities that first and foremost benefit others. Secondly, they are not directly trying to create a false “we’ll save the world” expectancy that others may have for them–and that this article hopes to address. Largely responsible for this empty hype is both a desperate autism community, and the overly-optimistic media portrayals these orgs have enjoyed.

The issues that plague our autism employment universe–or more pointedly, our warped expectations for them–are numerous, and larger than we want them to be; but to start with six…

1. Larger corporations are not the long-term answer we think they are. Yet four of the five above-mentioned organizations are almost entirely focused on convincing large businesses to give our spectrum folks a chance at employment–three of them are even entrenched in only one vocational option (software testing).

Only two of these orgs have probably had any dealings with small businesses, and yet almost all of the reputable labor forecasts predict that universal job growth will not come from Fortune 1000 companies at all. Prognosticators generally agree that over the course of the next ten years it will be small business growth that promises salvation, not large business. And if you’re looking for a particular field to grow by leaps and bounds, look to Health Care.

Furthermore, while there are many spectrum individuals for whom the uniformity of corporate life is a perfect fit, no one wants to admit that corporate culture is often directly incompatible with what makes autism…autism. What we refer to as “professionalism” is a composite of behavioral standards. So if autism is defined and diagnosed by noticeable behavioral differences, than this presents a relationship with Corporate America as doomed to fail for the majority of our folks. If a 30-minute job interview will be tough, maybe we should reconsider whether a 30-year career at that company is realistic.

Overall culture change (slightly a la Silicon Valley), an unlikely wager, is our only chance for turning larger corporations into a source for hope. And yet the early sign is that this is not on corporate America’s radar. Despite the overwhelming evidence that more diverse companies outperform their competitors, most Fortune 500 companies’ Diversity & Inclusion strategies are stuck on gender and race (though some were dragged kicking and screaming to accommodate the LGBTQ community). Disabilities, especially non-apparent disabilities, have yet to have their day in corporate court. Until this changes, we will always be doing 90% of the assimilating needed to make the relationship work.

2. Until the neurotypicals get their own unemployment numbers down, don’t expect them to be so generous with us. We made progress by turning the summer 2014 unemployment number of 6.0% into the current 4.9%; but no statistics lie like employment statistics lie, and we as spectrum folk are not the only ones in dire unemployment straits.

For starters, unemployment statistics do not take into account those whose joblessness has caused them to stop looking for work. Mostly “long-term unemployed” (i.e. have been out of work for 27 weeks or more), these unfortunates are joined by another category of worker that the U.S. Department of Labor does not include in their tallies–the employable disabled who have given up on the job search and filed for disability. Add all these people to the sums and the unemployment rate is no 4.9%.

Lastly, when job statistics improve, presumably through job creation, no one takes much of a look at what those new jobs pay. More often than not, no one is going to be able to come close to supporting a family on the salaries that most of these new jobs contain. Furthermore, most do not provide heath insurance and many are not even full-time positions.

One could go on and on in citing factors herein: the global economy, the loss of job protections/unions, technologies that replace humans, colleges that do not change with the tide in preparing us for the new marketplace…etc.

3. Those in the middle of the spectrum are often caught in educational inclusion programs for their schooling, and there is much that they could be doing in those teenage years to better prepare them for life outside of school. Instead of being forced to perform and be tested at an academic level that is equal to their peers (often a very unfair expectation enacted under the guise of equality–when in reality it’s just a cost-cutting maneuver), these folks could be spending their last two years of school training to be plumbers, electricians, welders…etc. In today’s economic climate, spectrumites who study those skilled trades might outearn most of their college-educated, neurotypical peers (Last fall, Temple Grandin and I wrote an article on this very notion).

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4. We need to internally resolve our love/mostly hate relationship with “sheltered workshops.” For those not in the know, sheltered workshops are jobs that our more challenged brothers and sisters engage in, that legally pays them subminimum wages. These often unpopular but sometimes “that’s all there is” programs are usually organized by residential facilities or state-funded service agencies, wherein individuals work limited hours at tasks that won’t endanger their self-esteem, yet can still be thought of as productive to a hiring company (stuffing envelopes, tying ribbons…etc.). Too often advocates on our (spectrum) side cry for the elimination of such workshops when there are no employment alternatives in the particular region (as in my new state of Wisconsin). Therefore, when we are successful in shutting a workshop down we would sentence these folks to, admittedly, being more out into the community, but also back to watching TV all day on their parents’ or housing agencies’ couches. The problem with sheltered workshops is generally not in their design, but that they are too often illegally implemented.

A large portion of any vocational programs’ success rates–non-profit, or government funded–should be measured by their ability to recruit local businesses to hire our folks. Historically, sheltered workshops have been a too-easy way out of the hard work that such recruitment demands. But if there’s nothing else around….

5. The programs and services currently in play through state agencies are pitiful when compared–in both design and implementation–to the work of the aforementioned non-profits. We need a United States Department of Labor to shift funding into these organizations, and away from disillusioned agencies that consistently violate health and safety protocols. Granted, when examined, these orgs that I herald are helping a miniscule portion of our population (numbers that I would do the orgs a disservice to research and report) when compared to the true need. But what could they do if, like most non-profits, they didn’t need to focus 60% of their efforts on fundraising just to stay afloat, and could instead grow?

6. Approaches to unemployment must change. For most unemployed folks, the climate is vastly different than when they first entered the workforce. The sad fantasy/assumption that they can obtain something close to the same job, and at the same salary, as existed in the job they lost…is simply akin to a gambling addict staying at the slot machine to get his/her money back. Career changes, going back to school, developing new (sometimes self-taught) vocations, and entrepreneurship…are nowhere near as much on our “unemployment radar” as they need to be. The rut of only sending resumes to total strangers must end.

* Think of a 1 in 68 prevalence number in a nation of 318.9 million, then take the working ages between 18-69 and then enact the 75-85% unemployment number…

If, as Bernie Sanders tells us, the richest 85 people in the world own more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, than in the grand scheme of things we are only beginning to get others to want to change, not to mention change. It seems that everyone–except the businesses in power–is saying that the time is now to solve the autism employment crisis.

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This is a repost of Autism Without Fear: Don’t Get Too Excited about Unemployment Initiatives

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Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, a School Consultant, and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out” (Penguin/Perigee 2008), “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum,” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), “‘Why Am I Afraid of Sex?’ Building Sexual Confidence in the Autism Spectrum…and Beyond!” (also Jessica Kingsley Publishers, late 2016), and “The Last Memoir of Asperger’s Syndrome” (unsigned). In 2000, he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Re-evaluated in 2014, he was diagnosed with ASD. More information can be found at www.michaeljohncarley.com. Follow Michael John Carley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjcarley

The Empoyment Shift is a feature of the Art of Autism’s new series titled the Autism Shift which features articles about our shifting views on autism.

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