At Work, With Autism


June, 2017


By Laura Cassar, Crain Content Studio Detroit
First published in Crain’s Detroit Business
  • 1 in 68 individuals have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.
  • 50 percent of individuals with autism have normal or above-average intelligence; 12 percent fall in the extremely high IQ range, exceeding the proportion of the typical population.
  • The mandated federal diversity hiring objective for disability is 7 percent for federal contractors.
  • Employers receive a $2,400 direct federal tax credit per individual with a disability hired.
  • Companies typically spend $3,500 to fill an empty position. AAoM’s retention rate is over 96 percent.
  • 87 percent of Americans say they prefer to give their business to companies that hire individuals with autism, and 92 percent of Americans view companies hiring individuals with autism and related disabilities more favorably than those that do not.
Individuals with autism are hired to work in various industries and roles including:

  • Information technology
  • Engineering
  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Business offices
  • Laborers
  • Retail
  • Health
  • Entertainment
  • Food

Imagine your job is to tell how many fingers a co-worker is holding up. The fingers change in random order; you need to say out loud how many there are.

Seems simple enough.

Now imagine this: air is blasting on the back of your neck and another co-worker occasionally shoves you from behind. Someone waves a strobe light in front of the hand that’s holding up the fingers. And two more co-workers read in your ears: They each read aloud different books at the same time.

Now how many fingers is your co-worker holding up?

This is a scene that Josh Stokes, a 26-year-old individual with autism, recently put to a role-play test at an employer training event led by the Autism Alliance of Michigan. The role-play and event was designed to illustrate some of the workplace challenges – and unique benefits – of individuals with autism.

Founded in 2009 by Dave Meador of DTE Energy and Steve D’Arcy of PricewaterhouseCoopers, AAoM works to improve the quality of life for individuals with autism through education, access to comprehensive services, community awareness, inclusion efforts and coordinated advocacy. Within that mission is its growing push to impact the state’s unemployment rate and talent gap with an untapped workforce: those with autism. Between 75 and 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed.

“Frequently we hear from businesses that they cannot find reliable employees. We have a talent pool of hundreds of individuals that, by clinical definition, have normal to high intelligence, arrive at work on time, complete tasks efficiently and with attention to detail,” said Colleen Allen, AAoM’s president and CEO. These individuals “present a business solution with potential of a high return on investment.”

Help for employers

A key part of AAoM’s workforce effort happens before the individual with autism ever sets foot in the door.

As part of the program, supervisors, human resources departments and staff receive training to learn what they can expect from these employees with autism. That training includes a “What is Autism” presentation by Stokes.
Stokes works full-time as a chef and is studying to be a special education teacher. He was diagnosed at age 7. His presentation is a window to his world and that of others with autism.

Stokes has given about 40 autism presentations at workplaces throughout metro Detroit.

“Individuals with (Autism Spectrum Disorder) are great workers,” Stokes said. “We have great potential to focus, which makes us incredibly efficient.”

There are five things AAoM requests of new employers when hiring an individual with autism: assume they are competent, support their communication needs, be aware of their sensory needs, model appropriate behavior and friendships, and have fun.

AAoM uses Josh’s presentation to help employers recognize and understand some of the sensory difficulties that some individuals with autism experience. By working with job seekers for many months in advance, AAoM knows these individuals’ specific abilities, including frequently a high degree of technical ability, and works with both the individual and the company to best manage them. In addition to social communication struggles, for instance, one core clinical feature of individuals with autism is the need for self-soothing repetitive behavior. A recent individual with autism who was placed in a job was guided to move pennies from hand to hand as a self-soothing mechanism that wouldn’t disrupt co-workers.

Companies are beginning to recognize the broad range of talents and abilities among individuals with autism and other disabilities. Most companies seek help from this talent pool because of the high levels of unemployment in the group and the fact that a high percentage of individuals with autism have average or above-average intelligence. “The more big companies do this, the more it becomes the norm and we can really change things,” said Kirstin Queen, manager of diversity and inclusion for Ford. Stokes presented to Ford employees this spring.

Help for employees

In addition to its work with the employers, AAoM works with individuals with disabilities to help them prepare to find a job.

The AAoM database houses about 300 job seekers from Michigan and an additional out-of-state pool of job seekers with disabilities. Jesse Sissom, 32, was one of Michigan’s job seekers on the autism spectrum. Sissom was having a hard time getting through the interview process to find meaningful employment. AAoM helped him prepare for interview questions.

Sissom secured an interview with Michigan Blood, an independent, nonprofit blood bank that supplies 36 hospitals across Michigan. After AAoM’s coaching, Sissom got the job.

“People with autism offer a lot of value to companies,” Sissom said, noting that the position is a good fit for him because of his attention to detail. “I make sure everything is right because people’s lives depend on it.”

Attention to detail is just one of the notable strengths an individual with autism brings to the workplace, according to AAoM. Other strengths include visual thinking, systematic information processing, efficiency and disinterest in “office politics.”

“A person who thinks differently is worth more than you can count,” said Tammy Morris, AAoM’s chief program officer.

To join the dozens of metro Detroit businesses that are increasing workforce diversity and taking advantage of the talents of individuals with autism, visit, email or call 877-463-2266 (AAOM).

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