The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘jobs

Temple Grandin preaches autistic skills at Minnesota

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Continuing to catch up on my articles, a friend of mine linked a Star Tribune story in late February highlighting a Minnesota visit from Temple Grandin, who spoke at the inaugural Autism and Employment Forum at 3M’s headquarters. 

3M, Cargill, Best Buy and the Autism Society of Minnesota sponsored the event, designed to raise awareness and boost hiring levels of autistic people, where the employment rate is a measly three percent (lower than the winning percentage of the Minnesota Timberwolves). While the general lack of social skills can present obstacles in finding a full-time job, employees of the event sponsors believe autistics are the largest untapped pool of talent. Grandin suggested Silicon Valley, Hollywood, corporate labs and IT departments are loaded with “well-paid” individuals who would fall on the spectrum (autism’s diagnosis rate is difficult to track with people who may be autistic but not carry an official diagnosis).

Grandin’s biggest suggestion for employers was to be specific because most autistic people may misinterpret what is being said. She listed an example of taking a 30-minute lunch break within a two-hour time block instead of saying the lunchroom is available from the opening to closing time.

I can relate to the difficulties of finding employment, especially with my chosen field and media market size (the Twin Cities is the 15th largest market and larger organizations skew towards veterans of the journalism trade). Unless you plan to relocate to a smaller market (and most of my peers who decided to stick with journalism have), freelancing and networking are two ways to offset the lack of regular work that has come my way. Social skills are a must with my profession, as I frequently have to make eye contact with my colleagues and subjects. Fortunately, implementing those facets aren’t difficult as I enter my third season covering the Minnesota Lynx and wrapped up my fifth season covering high school basketball.

Dee DePass’ story is no surprise for two reasons: the keynote speaker is the most highly-regarded individual on the autism spectrum, and Grandin’s keynote highlighted an issue that will face virtually all autistic people as the population sees an increase of aging spectrum inhabitants. However, the forum tackled just one facet of the challenge with autism and employment from the employer’s perspective. In terms of job hunting, little is known about how that will be addressed. Will it require autistic people to apply and perform job interviews? Will there be a job fair designed for people on the spectrum to meet with prospective employers? Those are future questions for further exploration in this division of autism news coverage. DePass’ story is effective with showing how adding autistic people can enrich the workroom for the same factor that leads to the hiring of others: the skill sets may be similar, but with every person comes an opportunity to improve and grow. Cargill expressed their gratitude with Grandin at the forum, who pioneered equipment designed to better handle animals.

If nothing else, readers may hopefully grasp the notion that employers are taking notice and adapting to the needs of a new breed of workers, which may calm even my concerns as I continue my quest of networking and job-searching. DePass’ story doesn’t account for the job market itself, but employment opportunities as a whole can be discussed elsewhere.

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If only I can market my asset

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Photo by Andrew Nelles, MSNBC

I’ve noted how autism is often placed into two camps when covered by mainstream media. One is the tragic storyline that metaphorically equals the heartbreak of a cancer diagnosis. The other is the “pedestal” where someone will transcend all notions of a label. The story I’m discussing falls close to the “pedestal,” but not quite. It’s a big-picture profile, including a non-profit organization in Chicago that helps train high-functioning autistic people to adapt to the workplace, a difficult preposition with the Danish “spiritual sister organization” Specialisterne suggesting that 85% of autistic people under the age of 21 are unemployed or underemployed.

Aspiritech, the organization in Chicago, was training high-functioning autistics as testers for software development companies at the publication date (December 8th, 2009). Brix was a former computer systems employee for Wrigley before moving to Aspiritech. He and employees at Denmark’s Specialisterne credit their autism for giving them an advantage. The common symptom of taking interest in repetitive, predictable work becomes a help versus a hindrance, with employees at Specialisterne serving as consultants to perform data entry or assembly work. Not the most exciting career path, but those with autism often thrive on it, giving intense focus to their task at the exclusion of almost everything else (a workplace example of lack of empathy).

The second half of the article highlights challenges facing autistic adults, the common thread being social interaction. Other authoritative names, including Temple Grandin, suggest society would benefit by including people on the autism spectrum in the workforce, emphasizing the differences in personality versus weaknesses of the disability. Robert Austin, professor at the Copenhagen Business School, sees autism as a variation that could contribute to innovation at work.

My first reaction? DING! There’s been so much emphasis on heartbreak and despair with autism stories in the last few years that it’s no surprise autistic people (myself included) are having little luck finding steady work. Of course, graduating from college in the middle of The Great Recession hasn’t helped my odds, but autistic people are certainly capable of performing some tasks without a problem. My difficulty is finding the right employers to evaluate my skills. On broader terms, switching the focus to differences instead of disabilities could also assist people who have more severe variants of autism find ways to utilize skills the neurotypical world wishes they had.

The author is a science writer with a doctorate based in Seattle and Copenhagen in Denmark, which likely explains the interviews with Danish personnel. This article continues the trend I’ve noticed since fall of progressing from introductions to investigations of deeper issues surrounding autism. Other local and national reports of this nature should be published in the near future as autism occupies more adults. The Autism Society of America published a similar story in The Autism Advocate a couple years ago, but this is the first national story I’ve read on the subject that is available to the public. The article is well-sourced, and the international perspective adds more credence by showing the audience that autism is noticed in other developed countries. I doubt the author’s contribution will instantly change conventional views of autistic people, but historians may point to stories like these if a gradual acceptance of autism is observed.

Speaking from my own observations, there’s a trend with autism employment stories that I noticed in this report: That autistic people excel at monotonous, tedious and repetitive work. Yeah, most of us in the autism circle know about that, but if the pattern continues with other news outlets, I’m concerned the public will come down with “Rain Man Syndrome 2.0” and assume that autistic people are only capable of jobs described in the article. I don’t call myself a journalist just for the heck of it.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 30, 2010 at 12:02 am