A lot has changed about how we view people with autism since the term first emerged a generation ago. Acceptance and inclusion are improving, and people like animal behaviorist Temple Grandin have shown that being on the autism spectrum doesn’t preclude a rewarding career.
In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair sits down with Grandin to talk about autism in the workplace and he looks at a local effort to help autistic kids transition to independent adulthood.
She teaches animal science at Colorado State University, runs a successful consulting business and, as on a recent trip to Akron, she spends a lot of time encouraging parents of autistic kids to get them out in the world.
“One of my big concerns right now is people on the milder end of the spectrum not getting jobs.”
Grandin says the workplace has room for autistic people:
“I went to school with kids who were labeled geeks and nerds that today would be on the autism spectrum. And they’ve got jobs. I’ve been out to NASA, I’ve been out to Google, I’ve been out to Microsoft. It’s Asperger’s, mild autism, everywhere!”
Learning work skills early
But Grandin says early intervention is crucial.
“When I was 3, I looked absolutely horrible. I had no speech, constant tantrums, no social interaction. And fortunately I got a lot of hours of early intervention.”
She credits her success to a string of jobs starting at age 7.
“When I was that age, I was party hostess at my mother’s parties – had to learn how to greet people. When I was 13, Mother got a sewing job that she just setup in the neighborhood with a seamstress. When I was 16, I was cleaning horse stalls every day. I was learning working skills.”
Grandin says it’s crucial that the life-skills all kids need to learn are also taught to kids on the autism spectrum.
“They need to be doing something outside the home. I’m seeing too much problem with these fully verbal kids with helicopter parents over-coddling them. They’re not learning basic things like shopping. Things I learned to do when I was 10.”
Employment: Number one challenge facing parents
But things are different now than when Temple Grandin was growing up.
Finding jobs for kids with autism today is a greater challenge, according to a recent survey conducted by Laurie Cramer, director of the Autism Society of Greater Akron.
“Meaningful employment with fair wages was the No. 1 issue that had the highest amount of folks saying. 'We need help and support and we need improvement.'”
Another wrinkle, says Cramer, is that disabled people who are employed at Ohio’s state-funded workshops will soon be out of work as those programs close starting this summer because of changes in federal requirements.
“So those direct-service providers are all in the midst of determining what they will look like coming out of all of this.”
Autism on the Town
In the meantime, the Autism Society of Greater Akron is launching a program called "Autism on the Town" to train autistic kids for the workplace , and to help employers learn how to handle them.
But Cramer says even highly educated people with autism have a hard time transitioning from the sheltered workshop to a job in the real world.
“I know someone who has an adult son with two different degrees. (He) can’t find employment. It’s more because of his social differences.”
Cramer estimates there are about 15,000 school-age kids with autism in Summit County and perhaps an equal number of adults on the spectrum.
Through gradual immersion into the community, she hopes autistic teens and adults will find their place in the workforce.
Austism is second for Grandin
Temple Grandin has a lot of the same goals.
“I want to see these kids get out there and be successful.”
And she says the way to do that is to gain work skills early, and not to let the autism label limit you later on.
“For me, being a college professor is my identity first, and autism is second. I’m seeing too many fully verbal, smart kids getting all hung up on their autism.”
People with autism can bring special skills to the workplace says Grandin, and with 50,000 adults on the spectrum in the U.S. entering the workforce each year, she hopes employers will find ways to accommodate them.