Article

Bringing Neurodiversity to the Workplace

By Sherri Craig

Lead in: A2W, a job readiness program, is a great example of how to prepare people with autism for long-term employment success.

As the mother of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I empathize with other parents and understand their deep concern for their sons’ and daughters’ futures. We are vigilant throughout every one of their developmental stages. Our core focus is to lay the foundation from which they will build their lives. But we hold our breath as they transition from adolescence to adulthood, and with that, our minds flood with questions and fears that have kept us up at night since the day of their diagnosis: What will they do when we are no longer here? How will they find employment? What are their options? What are ours?

According to Autism Speaks, nearly half of all 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job, yet that work is exactly what helps them increase independence and improve their life skills. Those that do work often have part-time jobs that frequently pay them at poverty level or lower. It is no wonder we are concerned about their future.

Fortunately, there are options and organizations invested in long-term success for individuals with autism, like CAI’s Autism2Work.

Meet Tony

Tony Arocho, a brilliant nuclear engineering academic with two degrees, was struggling to find work. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in college, Tony discovered that he had a hard time understanding the unspoken expectations that came with communicating and socializing with new people either on campus or in the office. Beginning a career under what were for him foreign circumstances created barriers to finding a job.

He had the subject matter knowledge, but the pressure he felt facing interview questions thwarted him from showcasing it. He lost out on job opportunities and employers lost out on his talents. “It was a challenging process, and I was really disappointed when I didn’t get the job. I was left aimless with two degrees in nuclear engineering technology and no place to use them.”

Tony longed to not just have a job, but a career that challenged and fulfilled him.

Successful Employment in Three Unique Steps

Individuals like Tony and employers who value neurodiversity benefit from CAI’s Autism2Work (A2W). A2W is a unique program designed to recruit and accurately screen and train candidates with ASD. While it is a department within CAI, which is an IT consulting company, my A2W team and I source, recruit, and train our own candidates outside of the corporate recruiting/talent acquisition team. It is that invested time, attention, and focus applied to considered candidates that makes the program unique.  Because it is set up outside of the traditional recruiting program, A2W enables candidates to succeed.

Instead of the traditional interview process, A2W learns about the candidate’s expertise, how they work, and empowers them for employment through a complete job readiness training program. A2W helps candidates with ASD find enjoyable, productive careers in three simple steps:

  1. Introduction and Competency Call: Once the candidate is identified by either a referral or job application, it is all about getting to know them. In this hour-long conversation with an A2W talent specialist, the candidate discusses their hobbies and interests, giving us a chance to pinpoint their strengths and understand how they communicate, learn, and process information. Candidates learn more about CAI and the A2W team. This is the most casual conversation of the process.

  2. Job Fit Validation Session: Based on the competency call, qualified candidates are scheduled for a three-hour validation session. The goal is to learn as much about the candidate’s interests as possible, provide information about the hiring process, and assess them in order to recommend their best-fit job profile. In this session, they also have the opportunity to meet future coworkers and complete various exercises that gauge their hard and soft skills.

  3. Job Readiness Training: Based on the results of the job validation session and available positions, the candidate is invited to an in-house 60-hour job readiness training course to prepare for the opportunity, which takes place in the same region as the place they will work. The training course serves as the candidates’ interview. Providing a setting that replicates a full-time workday offers candidates a way to discover their strengths as well as comfortably learn about what is expected of an employee and the tools needed to be successful.

This program has evolved since its inception over seven years ago. As we have learned what works well, the program has grown into a successful method for helping candidates with ASD identify their career paths and effectively integrate within the work environment.

Tony went through the three-step process, and found success. He was offered and accepted a position as a quality assurance analyst at a large financial firm, an exciting step after his more recent jobs at a gas station and a Panera Bread restaurant. “I cannot say enough about how this experience encouraged me to grow—so much more than if I stayed at home with my family,” said Tony, whose job offered him the independence and growth that living and working on his own provide.

Programs like A2W gives many parents hope for their children’s futures. Their passage into adulthood should not have to be nerve-racking; rather, it should be exciting to see them hone their skillset and optimize that in their work.

Today, the world is beginning to understand neurodiversity and the value it can bring to communities. Our workplaces should reflect these perspectives and ways of thinking that bring new ideas and improved efficiency. Working with amazing support organizations like OAR and Hire Autism on a national platform, A2W will help more Tonys pursue dreams of independence and career opportunities that match those dreams.

Sherri Craig is the senior outreach & development specialist for CAI’s Autism2Work (A2W) practice. She specializes in building relationships with organizations, government agencies, and colleges that recruit candidates diagnosed with autism and educates them on A2W’s benefits. With over 13 years of collective experience at CAI, she currently oversees A2W’s outreach, recruiting, associated pipeline management, and training and development facilitation.

She is a certified neurodiversity professional through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) and is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in social sciences.