The burgeoning employment market for young adults on the spectrum

Nils at Special Blend

People with autism are often viewed as socially inept because of their difficulties with social interaction and catching onto social cues, but autistic servers at Chez Genèse have been demonstrating the fallacy of this assumption since they display a consistent courtesy in their engagements with customers and an astute attention to the details of customer orders…

By Nils Skudra

A significant recent development in the U.S. economy has been the opening of new job opportunities for young adults on the autism spectrum. A wide variety of new businesses have emerged which are specifically targeting special needs candidates for employment due to the widespread discrimination that they face in the job market, as well as the recognition that these particular candidates, by virtue of their autism diagnosis, bring a unique degree of focus and commitment to their work. Here in Greensboro, North Carolina, I have experienced this firsthand through my employment at Chez Genèse and A Special Blend, two new cafes that expressly seek to hire individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as cashiers, servers, baristas and kitchen staff. While my long-term goal is to become a full-time professional historian, working part-time at both of these cafes is reaping significant rewards for me with respect to the development of important job skills and my observation of how young adults on the autism spectrum are adapting to the demands of the workplace.

As one of the cashiers at A Special Blend (located at 3900 West Market Street in Greensboro), I regularly conduct transactions with customers, taking their orders, passing them on to the baristas, and processing cash or credit card payments. In this capacity, I have been acquiring significant new skills in the handling of money, the use of a cash register, and sustained social interaction with members of the public. Since I have an extensive background in volunteer ushering with different theater companies, customer service experience was something which I could readily apply to this job when I was hired. However, working as a cashier demands much more attention to detail and organization since it involves paying close attention to the food and/or beverage orders from customers, informing them whether the café has run out of a particular item, entering the orders in the cash register, and repeating them back in order to ensure that I have entered them correctly, as well as carefully handling the cash transactions so that I give the correct amount of change back to the customer. While I have previously applied my detail-orientation to my historical research, learning to utilize it in this setting is very beneficial since this experience may prove useful in a future museum or administrative job that I hope to obtain.

A Special Blend is also a prime example of the burgeoning job market for young adults on the spectrum since the owner Deedee Ungetheim and former manager Maria Perrot started this business venture with the expressed aim of hiring a crew that would be completely composed (excepting the management staff) of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Since 80% of adults with special needs are currently unemployed, A Special Blend hopes to open doors by hiring individuals in this category and providing them with important skills that can be transferrable to other employment venues.

As part of a team of 21 hired staff members and 18 volunteers, I have observed that these not only include young adults on the autism spectrum but also some who have Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities. Oftentimes individuals with these particular disabilities are shunned by mainstream society, as it is widely assumed that they will never be able to successfully attend college or lead productive careers because of their severe physical and intellectual challenges. But in working at A Special Blend, these staff members have demonstrated an amazing level of adaptation to the tasks that are expected of them, as they bring enthusiasm and dedication to their interactions with the public as well as a close attention to meeting customers’ needs.

My experience of working at Chez Genèse has been similarly rewarding with respect to the development of job skills and the adaptation of young autistic adults to the workplace. Kathryn Hubert opened this new French bistro restaurant at 616 South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro about a month ago with the goal of employing an integrated crew in which individuals with special needs would comprise 50% of the staff. Thus, in contrast to A Special Blend where the staff is entirely composed of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (except for the management), young adults on the spectrum at Chez Genèse have an opportunity to work alongside neuro-typical individuals who share the same occupational positions as servers and kitchen staff. I consider this arrangement to be beneficial since it provides autistic adults with the experience of learning what it is to work in an integrated employment venue, which will be critical for them as they transition into other jobs that will involve working with a greater number of neuro-typical colleagues.

Nils and Kathryn Hubert at Chez Genese
Nils and Kathryn Hubert at Chez Genese

As a server at Chez Genèse, I regularly undergo the rigors of waiting tables, which not only include the routine of welcoming customers, taking their orders, ringing them up and serving them, but also conducting the customary two-bite check and processing checks after customers are finished. This has been a significant learning experience for me since I often go out for dinner and observe firsthand how well the service is performed, which I can then compare with the job that my fellow staff members and I are doing. I feel that it is a remarkable accomplishment for individuals on the spectrum at Chez Genèse to be adapting very successfully to the demands of the server position since it requires both good social interaction skills and sound administrative knowledge for the handling of customers’ checks.

People with autism are often viewed as socially inept because of their difficulties with social interaction and catching onto social cues, but autistic servers at Chez Genèse have been demonstrating the fallacy of this assumption since they display a consistent courtesy in their engagements with customers and an astute attention to the details of customer orders, sending those orders through, serving the food, conducting the two-bite checks, and then processing customers’ checks. This ample proof of autistic individuals’ adaptability to the workplace holds out promising prospects for potential employers who may be seeking such job skills for higher level positions.

In summation, the experience of working at Chez Genèse and A Special Blend is a strong testament to the present phenomenon of businesses seeking young adults on the spectrum for employment. Both cafes have made an impressive showing in their staff members’ performance and adaptability to the administrative and socially interactive aspects of customer service, and the public reception has been truly amazing – on the day of A Special Blend’s grand opening, there were literally hundreds of customers lined up inside and out the door. The success of these new Greensboro establishments will hopefully be a harbinger of future job opportunities for young autistic adults as their organizational skills and talents are sought by other emerging businesses. The subsequent opening of more doors will bode well for the prospects of curbing the high unemployment rate among individuals on the autism spectrum and ensuring their successful integration as productive members of the workforce.

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“I am an artist on the autism spectrum, specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history as a second-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children.I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

I have also been pursuing a side career as a freelance journalist, and I have had at least 8 articles published in local magazines and newspapers from various cities and towns in North Carolina and in Pittverse Magazine (based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), which is staffed entirely by people on the autism spectrum. I am very keen on contributing articles as a regular blogger for the Art of Autism. Among my ideas for article topics are my experiences with disclosing my diagnosis in the workplace; and local businesses which are staffed by people on the spectrum and which donate their proceeds to autism causes. Through these blogs I hope to highlight the issues of autism’s portrayal in film, the challenges of discrimination that autistic individuals encounter in the workplace, and to promote support for local organizations that are dedicated to autism causes.”

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