For young adults with autism, unemployment is a major crisis. Over half remain unemployed and un-enrolled in higher education two years after graduating high school, according to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. With national unemployment at a 50-year-low, some companies in Michigan are taking advantage of the unique skills and talents offered by individuals with autism by teaming with the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAM), a Michigan-based non-profit working to improve the lives of families and individuals with autism.
In 2016, the Ford Motor Company became the first employer to team up with AAM to give job-ready young adults with a chance to find unemployment. Three years later, the partnership has proved to be a success, with 17 individuals with autism working for the Ford Motor Company full-time, part-time, and in contractor positions. Other Michigan-based employers have taken the lead, with roles for individuals with autism being offered at companies such as DTE Energy, General Motors, and Motor City Casino Hotel. According to a report this month by Spectrum News, over 150 workers with autism have been hired by those companies so far.
“There's this untapped talent pool that we should be looking at to fill these jobs," Colleen Allen, the CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, was quoted as saying by Spectrum News. "Knowledge goes a long way."
The social, behavioral, and communication challenges connected with autism can serve as a barrier to employment for many individuals on the autistic spectrum, even if they hold college degrees. While the autism unemployment rate is not tracked by the government, studies have placed it at around 90%. The Michigan Autism Alliance works to connect people with autism with jobs matching their skill sets in technology, finance, engineering, and other areas. The organization currently has a 97% retention rate. Other business leaders have noted that workers with autism are often model employees, who stay with the company and contribute a unique perspective to the workplace.
In 2016, Ford began its efforts to increase diversity by launching FordInclusiveWorks. Four participants with autism were given the chance to try out a job in product development and go through the recruitment process. All four were hired. Ford’s plan to increase the diversity of its workforce began around the same time that Autism Alliance of Michigan was working to create a pipeline to match businesses to workers with autism. As noted by Spectrum, much of the Autism Alliance’s work occurs before the candidate enters the workplace. Candidates are led through a series of steps to prepare them for employment, with experts going over their resumes and social media and helping them work on their communication skills. Businesses recruiters meet with candidates every month for mock interviews, and candidates take a skills assessment as well.
According to Allen, the positions are geared towards individuals with autism (who are often uncomfortable with change) by focusing on tasks that are predictable and consistent, and by allowing an employee to work mostly alone so that he or she feels more comfortable. When faced with a stressful event or a change, employees can call an Alliance staff member for help. The staff member can then help the employee transition into the new, and may meet with them on a monthly or weekly basis. During the hiring process, companies like DTE offer additional accommodations, such as extra time for qualification exams or moving an interview location to make it more comfortable for the applicant.
In addition to helping job seekers, efforts are also in place to provide on-the-job training for high school students with autism and other conditions. Project Search, an initiative that began at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, has programs at several employers in the Detroit Metropolitan area, including DTE and Blue Cross Shield of Michigan.
For the past five years, DTE has created a broad spectrum of internship roles for dozens of public school students with special needs. Running from September to June, the internships cover a variety of jobs. At the end of each day, the students evaluate the day and discuss successful strategies with a teacher. Over 40 participants have graduated from the program thus far, with seventeen going on to work at companies in the area. One graduate has been hired by DTE.
“The eagerness, the enthusiasm, the positivity, it’s truly contagious," Diane Antishin, DTE's vice president of human resources operations, was quoted as saying by Spectrum News. "It's the resilience of these individuals that have struggle every day and make it to work and show up with a positive attitude. It's contagious and impacts our broader workplace."