by John Bryson, M.S.E, Sr. Manager, Corporate Employment Consulting, NEXT for AUTISM
I’m often asked why I work in disability employment helping young people with autism and other disabilities prepare for and find meaningful work. My answer is always the same. I’m motivated by a case that lit a fire in me. Its senselessness was impossible to ignore.
At a community vocational program where I worked years ago, I often visited with a young man named Jerry.* Jerry was on the autism spectrum, and he attended the workshop daily. I particularly enjoyed seeing him, as his smile always brightened my day and lit up the room with positivity. One day, I found Jerry diligently bent over a task he’d been given. When he saw me, he excitedly demonstrated his job. He took a bag containing a thousand cotton swabs, dumped them into a yellow plastic tray, inspected them, and then one-by-one put all one thousand cotton swabs into another bag. Jerry repeated this process several more times until the day ended. When he came back the next day, he’d take out that same bag of cotton swabs and repeat the process all over again.
Though this type of “training” was common in vocational programs for people with developmental disabilities, its lack of ambition riled me. The rationale was to occupy participants and train them for jobs that required limited skills, but having worked with people with autism and other developmental challenges, I know they are capable of so much more if provided with the right training, goals and opportunities.
Jerry clearly demonstrated that he could perform tasks with accuracy, repeatedly. He had a positive attitude and a good work ethic – all qualities that any employer would value. But his “job,” as he was taught to call it, was an unacceptable option, a time-wasting activity, instead of a skill-building exercise. We could do so much better for Jerry with a more thoughtful approach to finding a job that fits his many qualities.
At NEXT for AUTISM, our employment consultants tailor positions to the skills of people like Jerry. We help applicants to prepare, apply for, and retain jobs. And we work with employers to teach them the value of workers with autism and other disabilities. Our goal is to guide employers toward creating an environment that embraces differences and increases their bottom line.
I work in transition services, training teachers and administrators to design employment programs that focus on the individual skills of each student, matching those skills to the employment needs of the marketplace. This ensures high school students have in demand skill sets so they can more effectively transition into adulthood. We’ve supported students to obtain employment in retail, clerical, manufacturing, food service, hospitality, technology, digital video, and more.
Each year, when the school starts, I get that feeling of excitement, just as some of the students might. I’m looking forward to working with new groups of young people who, like Jerry, are capable and ready for meaningful work with our support.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Editor’s Note: After this incident, Jerry was moved into a Supported Employment environment where he worked on a landscaping crew.