Two years ago, Robert Langford, store manager at a London Drugs in Calgary, had several people with autism try out a work placement at his store.
The 11-week experience involved three hours per week at the 76-employee location, with support from job coaches around issues such as customer interaction. In the end, two of the participants were hired and, since then, London Drugs has hired another four, said Langford.
“I don’t think there’s been really any more challenges than hiring someone off the street,” he said, adding these employees can be very dedicated and conscientious. “There might be a little more work at the beginning just getting them settled in and everything, but it’s not an extreme amount.”
Most of the employees are high-functioning and they handle various tasks such as “facing” products on shelves, tidying up and handling cash registers. They are also well-trained and supported by the Ability Hub and the Society for the Treatment of Autism in Calgary. The latter also gave a presentation to the management team at London Drugs to talk about what they could expect, said Langford.
Autism spectrum disorder, a neurobiological disorder that impacts normal brain development, leaves most individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour, according to the Autism Canada Foundation.
“It’s called a spectrum because we talk about individuals that are high-functioning — they may be very verbal, they may be very, very bright and often are, but they are not adept at working in an environment where there’s a social component,” said Tom Collins, president of the Ability Hub.
“So we have lots of really well-educated folks who can’t hold down a job because they don’t interact necessarily appropriately with co-workers or with a supervisor because they don’t understand the rules of that game. But, with the right support, they can be very productive employees.”
And more employers are discovering just that. Nine years ago, Thorkil Sonne set up Specialisterne, an organization that involves people with autism who work as business consultants on tasks such as software testing, programming and data entry. Originally started in Denmark, it has expanded to several other countries and plans to launch this year in Canada through a continuing partnership with software giant SAP, he said.
A lot of people with autism have an attention to detail, a good memory and a very structured way of thinking and working, according to Sonne, whose son has autism. They like the repetitive elements in jobs and some are very creative, finding new solutions to existing ways of doing things.
“If we can find the right fit, then they can bring in a joy of work in areas where it may be hard for the corporate partners to find the… resources to do so,” he said. “I believe that in any business area, at least five per cent of all tasks would fit very well with the skill sets of the people that we can bring into the workforce.”
Data entry, for example, is a strong area and while most neuro-typical people would have a four to six per cent error rate, people with autism have virtually negligible error rates and are able to do the work that much faster, according to Collins. Jobs such as prep cooks — one of the hardest jobs to fill in the restaurant industry — are also a good match, he said.
“Many on the spectrum really need and value structure, so doing repetitive tasks is actually very comforting and a very secure thing for them.”
This group can also bring a different viewpoint to the workplace, according to David Nicholas, associate professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary.
“People with autism often bring skills and focus that allow them to excel in a job and contribute in a meaningful way to that organization — sometimes in a way that others wouldn’t.”
However, too often, people with autism are not considered for jobs because of a misunderstanding or lack of awareness.
“Many are being excluded from the labour market just because they don’t fit into the standard expectations of social skills, but they could do a really good job if they were understood and accommodated,” said Sonne.
Eighty-five per cent of people with autism are unemployed, yet only one-third have an intellectual impairment, said Maureen Jensen-Fitzpatrick, employment project co-ordinator at Autism Calgary.
Individuals on the higher end of the spectrum may not present well in interview situations and may need additional support in connecting with a job, she said.
They’re diligent, trustworthy, routine-oriented — in some ways, they’re model employees, said Jensen-Fitzpatrick, but it’s about bridging the gap, explaining to employers about the challenges and minor accommodations needed to optimize an employee’s potential.
If, for example, there is a noisy open office environment, dividers or headphones may be needed. Sensory issues may also require a change in lighting. Support people such as job coaches from external agencies are also an important resource when it comes to concerns such as the interview process, punctuality or relationships, said Nicholas, who is doing a study of people with autism in vocational programs.
“Sometimes, those individuals are key in terms of working out the issues to overcome and clarity around tasks — just support in moments when things can go awry... Those roles are really critical.”
It’s also about setting expectations when it comes to management style and adjusting behaviour, such as not using irony or sarcasm — saying what you mean and meaning what you say, said Sonne.
And, in the end, most employees — and employers — appreciate this approach.
“They’ve learned about good management and they found out their own staff also liked this management style,” he said. “A place where our people thrive will, in general, be a good place to work.”
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