Autistic job fairs seek to shift assumptions

Job candidates continue to fight workplace stigma, high unemployment
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/29/2019
Job Fair
Autistic recruits await a chance to speak with employers at the Spectrum Works autism job fair in Toronto last month. Credit: Spectrum Works

A long line of job candidates snaked through the Metro Hall in Toronto last month, patiently awaiting an opportunity to find work.

The third annual Spectrum Works autism job fair took place in Toronto, Montreal and Richmond, B.C., with 900 total registrants in attendance.

In Toronto, recruiters from 17 organizations attended the event, giving participants access to job skill workshops, resumé and employment consulting, on-site job interviews and community service providers. Among the companies involved were Loblaws, Apple, the Royal Bank of Canada, Bell and Scotiabank.

The multi-city effort is intended to help Canadians on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find meaningful work, said Xavier Pinto, event organizer and co-owner of Substance Cares in Toronto.

“We want to shift the assumptions associated with people living with ASD and change the idea that they can’t contribute to the workforce,” he said. “When given the opportunity, people with ASD can do a great job.”

“We’re in 2019. This is high time we start building programs to help inclusion within your organizations,” said Pinto. “At the end of the day, it will only add to your organization.”

One in 66 Canadians lives with autism, a neurological disorder that affects how the brain functions — often causing communication and social difficulties, as well as interest in a limited number of activities.

The way ASD affects an individual varies, depending on the severity of symptoms.

In 2012, 83 per cent of adults with autism reported no employment income, while just 14 per cent were employed, according to the most recent Statistics Canada data.

Those statistics need to improve — and quickly, said Pinto, noting work, volunteer opportunities and purposeful daytime activity help to provide crucial structure and community that enhance an autistic person’s quality of life.

“Moving forward, the community will not be able to survive if that keeps going on, especially if we are depending on just the government and great organizations like this to help out,” he said.

“We have to have more people working and out there in the workforce in order for them to be self-sufficient and self-sustainable.”

Hiring autistic workers creates an empathetic environment and life change that spurs employees and families to flourish, when the process is conducted appropriately, said Sam Benamron, owner of a physiotherapy clinic that employs autistic workers in Montreal.

At the Toronto event to present his film Included — a story of how his firm successfully integrated autistic employees — Benamron said job fairs are a major need in the autistic community.

Support for events like Spectrum Works continues to grow, with the biggest victory being that jobs are actually handed out, he said.

Job fair experience

Among those waiting in line in Toronto was Mike Cnudde, a 56-year-old communications professional from Brampton, Ont., who has been unemployed for the last two years.

It was his second time at the autism job fair, after being diagnosed with high-functioning autism two years ago, he said.

“That’s pretty late in life,” said Cnudde. “I’ve tried a lot and done a lot. I’m not afraid of trying new things.”

While he has endured his share of layoffs over his career, the latest unemployment stint has been difficult, he said.

“I’m not blaming anybody,” said Cnudde, noting responsibility for his career ultimately falls on him. “It’s been interesting. It’s been challenging.”

In the past, colleagues may have perceived him as “weird,” “odd” and “less desirable to have in the office,” he said.

“People with autism — we’re all different,” said Cnudde. “There’s no one stereotype. Don’t be afraid to take a chance, no matter which age bracket they might be in. You could be very well-rewarded.”

Jacklyn Taccogna, 18, has also spent the last year looking for work.

“It’s not easy because you kind of think they’ll call back, but they won’t,” said the student at Philip Pocock Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont.

“Sometimes, I think I messed up the interview, or maybe they’re just judging me.”

“They don’t think I’m qualified. That’s the problem.”

In lieu of paid work, Taccogna spends time volunteering at a bakery and fitness studio.

“It’s all about variety,” she said. “Great tasks. Great people — people who help you and you keep learning from. It’s a great experience, but I want to apply those experiences to the workforce because I think it’d be very valuable.”

Different perspectives are a welcome addition to the workplace, said Sophia Dritsas, diversity recruitment consultant at Scotiabank — one of the employers at the Toronto event.

The job fair provided a general assessment of skills for recruits, then pointed them in the appropriate direction towards potential employers seeking related employment positions, she said.

“We’re just doing a general pre-screen because we have limited time. We can’t really get into a full-on interview with the candidates today, so we’re just asking them what interests them about Scotiabank,” said Dritsas.

“What type of roles are they looking for? What type of job? Full time? Part time? Are they open to internships or contracts, as well? What are their career goals?”

“In this particular space, candidates have strong attention to detail,” she said. “We’re looking for top talent at the end of the day, and that includes people with disabilities and includes people on the spectrum.”

Events such as autism job fairs give organizations an opportunity to build a database of potential employees, said Dritsas.

“Everyone has a different way of working. Everyone offers unique skills and abilities,” she said. “It’s bringing all those different skills and perspectives together. That offers a competitive advantage, for sure.”

Employers interested in hiring autistic Canadians should connect with an employment agency for more information on the process, said Dritsas.

Advice for employers

Inviting autistic people to join the workforce is a truly rewarding task for employers, said Benamron.

“To me, it’s very important, because they have unique qualities that I can tell you I would never be able to do,” he said. “In any business, you need to maximize potential of everybody that works for you. That’s how you do well.”

Autistic Canadians continue to deal with workplace stigma where employers refuse potential opportunities because they prefer not to deal with issues, such as stimming tendencies — repetitive movements often used by autistic persons as a calming mechanism, said Benamron.

Autistic workers bring benefits to companies, including the near-instant creation of a supportive environment, where all staff can feel proud when autistic employees achieve their goals.

“We touched a life,” he said. “That, in itself, is worth it.”

“Honestly, high-functioning (autistic employees) bring everything that any other employee does. On the lower-functioning end, if you do the job correctly, you really see them progress and come out of their shell to become more functional.”

It is critical that employers are not simply creating jobs as a chance to do good, according to Benamron.

Positions should be fully integrated, and surrounded by flexibility to allow workers to take breaks when necessary to stim.

Matching autistic workers to specific go-to managers is also recommended, he said.

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