A Force to be Reckoned With

They can be quirky;  they may not look you in the eye; they may resist a handshake.  They may speak with an affect or not speak much at all.  If you get them going on a topic near to their hearts, they may not stop talking. Someone dear to me has many of these tendencies .  He’s my 19 -year- old son who, along with a difficult-to-quantify segment of the population,  has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

It feels like we spent an eternity getting him through school.  Now he participates in a transition program designed to prepare him for next steps, whatever those might be.  He mentions college.  I think workplace.  Yet in my pragmatic mind, as I hear about large numbers of qualified people on unemployment, I wonder why an employer would hire my guy, who would likely show up at work with a job coach and would need special accommodations, instead of another who would be ready to roll on day one.

My question will be addressed on February 17 at a first annual forum to be held on the 3M campus in Maplewood, Minnesota.  Under the new leadership of Executive Director Sherrie Kenny, mother of an adult son on the autism spectrum, The Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) has brought together three major employers and an accomplished adult with ASD to speak about autism and employment.

AuSM’s premise is that with education comes change.  The goal of the forum, says Kenny, is to educate people in the workplace about the growing number of employees on the spectrum. The event will feature Dr. Temple Grandin, arguably the most well-known adult with ASD, as keynote speaker. The subject of the award-winning HBO film bearing her name, Grandin is an author and animal behavior expert.  She provides invaluable insight into a condition which is estimated to affect 1 in 110 people.  She will talk about the gifts and talents employees with ASD bring to the workplace, noting they are differently-abled, not disabled.

Representatives from Best Buy, 3M and Cargill will speak about hiring, nurturing and retaining employees with ASD.  For, as Susan Larson, Human Relations Communications at Best Buy, says, people with ASD tend to be very loyal employees.  They (and their families) are grateful for the chance to work. Turnover is expensive for companies.  While they may spend a little more to bring someone with ASD on board, they may save in the long run.

When I read Temple’s work or hear her speak, I gain much helpful insight into my son.  It helps me to be less frustrated by his condition and more fascinated by him. I’m looking forward to spending some time with her next Wednesday and to attending the forum on Thursday.  I’m looking for insights that might help others to be less fearful of people who, while they have an “invisible disability,” are becoming  more visible in our communities. Stay tuned for a column about the forum later this week in the Pioneer Press.