Autism Awareness and Employers

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By Dan Coulter

I saw a nice feature in the paper this morning about Autism Awareness Month. Of course, in our family, every month is Autism Awareness Month. Every day is Autism Awareness Day. Every minute get the idea.

We’ve seen a lot of progress since our son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 1997. Especially in the way the media is increasingly portraying people with autism spectrum disorders as people and not aliens.

We’re also making progress in raising awareness of adults on the autism spectrum. For too many years, media stories focused on telegenic children. Often in "look at this poor kid" stories which subtly encouraged audiences to think, "Thank God that’s not my child."

Except, of course, now it more often is. More and more people are realizing that someone in their immediate or extended family has autism. They’re also realizing that autistic children grow up to become autistic adults. And they’re finally seeing that many of these adults can work alongside them and do a great job.

Consider Michael Burry, a financial fund manger who foresaw the coming subprime mortgage crisis and protected his clients’ investments when the market crashed.

Or Tori Saylor, a veterinary assistant whose sensitivity to animals helps her keep patients calm during medical procedures.

The average person could meet Michael or Tori and not immediately suspect either was on the autism spectrum.

But many others with autism are characterized as "low functioning." Stephen Shore, author of the book, "Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome," says that "low functioning" is a low functioning term.

Many people who have autism and significant challenges can be valuable employees. They may have extraordinary attention to detail and the ability to intensely focus on a task. Some are able to perform repetitive tasks with much higher accuracy than typical coworkers. These capabilities depend on the individual, not on the labels of autism or high or low functioning.

Whatever the level or complexity of the job, a few reasonable accommodations may be all it takes to help a person with autism fit into a workplace and be productive.

We need to help children on the spectrum find their strengths and become as job-ready as possible, but we also need to lay some groundwork by helping employers recognize and prepare to use their capabilities. While we’re making progress, we still have to correct simplistic, negative autism stereotypes.

After World War II, a number of Ivy League college officials came to Congress to testify against G.I. Bill provisions that would allow returning servicemen to attend their schools. They complained these soldiers wouldn’t fit in and would lower the quality of education for other students. Congress passed the bill anyway. The next year, the officials came back to apologize. They said many veterans were among the best students in their classes. They were dedicated and serious. They came not to party, but to learn.

I look forward to the day when employers who have negative preconceptions about people with autism come to similar realizations, and assess people with autism on their individual merits.

Let’s use Autism Awareness Month to bring that day closer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVD "Asperger Syndrome at Work: Success Strategies for Employees and Employers." You can find more articles on his website:

Copyright 2011 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

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