This op-ed appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on June 23, 2019.
Two weeks ago the Internet was abuzz when a joyful Minnesota mom posted a video of her 4-year-old son singing his first tune. The world beamed along with Sheletta Brundidge, for young Daniel Brundidge wasn’t just singing – he was speaking his first words.
That Daniel is one of three Brundidge children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) puts me in awe of his parents and the heavy lifting they are doing.
That Daniel found a pathway to communicating makes my heart full, for I’ve been there.
It also makes me wonder what the future holds for them and the scores of Americans who are diagnosed with conditions labeled as disabilities and who are disproportionately unemployed.
We’ve come a long way since my son was struggling to acquire language at about the same age as young Daniel. Jack is 28 now and I still agonize over his challenges and do a happy dance when he makes breakthroughs.
I’ve learned a lot since I penned my first piece about autism spectrum disorder for these pages 12 years ago — perhaps most important that the little people who are given an autism spectrum diagnosis become men and women with grown-up dreams and aspirations.
But the road to achieving those aspirations is paved with obstacles.
It’s a wrenching reality that’s captured in a multi-part TV docuseries on A&E, “The Employables.”
In each episode of “The Employables” we meet adults in their 20s or early 30s who yearn to be employed. Each episode features two people, one with autism, the other Tourette syndrome, a neurological condition marked by spontaneous physical and verbal outbursts called tics. In “The Employables,” the young adults typically live with their parents, play a lot of video games, and hope to find a job.
I commend the program for offering viewers what to me is realistic insight into the challenges both the individuals and their families face.
While many adult children boomerang back to their parents’ homes, many adult children with special needs never leave.
When most adult children are sorting through educational, vocational, and career choices independently, the adult children in “The Employables” are relying heavily on their parents for coaching on how to apply and interview for jobs and assess whether opportunities are the right fit.
Everyone is invested in a positive outcome for, as one mother says, work is the key to independence.
The young people are candid about their challenges and frustrations. Whether to disclose their autism or Tourette’s in an interview is a quandary with no clear answer.
Both refreshing and characteristic of many with ASD, the proclivity for honesty can be problematic for job seekers. One man with autism admits in an interview that in his previous job he broke things and cost the company money. He was fired, he said, and “it ended pretty ugly.” The interviewer is understandably concerned.
The process of finding a purpose and a paycheck takes a toll on self-esteem. Without exception, the young adults in the show want to be employed, to have a sense of purpose, to be self-sufficient.
They recognize their differences but don’t understand others’ reactions to them. Victoria, 25, describes feeling like an outcast for life.
“I don’t understand why they don’t accept me,” she says.
Since 2012, Chris Bentley has worked with employment-seeking clients of Fraser, Minnesota’s largest provider of services for individuals with ASD and mental health challenges. Despite low unemployment, there are many talented people who are unemployed or underemployed, Bentley says. While she has seen changes, Bentley says many barriers remain for her clients, starting with securing and successfully completing an interview.
“The Employables” highlights the obstacles inherent in the traditional application process. Like Bentley’s clients, the applicants typically have little or no job experience so it’s tough to secure an interview. If they are lucky enough to get one, they may struggle to communicate effectively. Without the type of job coaching Fraser offers, the applicants may be unprepared to answer questions satisfactorily.
What will it take to open more doors?
Job shadowing and informational interviews offer relatively low-stress opportunities for potential employees and employers to meet and assess whether they would be a good match.
Job trials proved effective in “The Employables.” When applicants were invited to perform tasks of a potential position, both they and their potential employers were able to discern if it was a good fit. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t.
For one man with Tourette syndrome it was obvious that working in a veterinary clinic was not a viable option. In a high-stress situation where focus was imperative and distractions unacceptable, his verbal and physical tics would be distracting for co-workers and himself.
In a museum he found a better fit, though. As he offered grade school children tours in a quiet environment, he was able to keep his tics under control and perform the job satisfactorily.
With some creativity and natural supports, employers may discover people whose minds work differently who are often gifted visual thinkers and problem solvers, and who pay great attention to detail and will be loyal, stable employees.
Perhaps it would be useful to offer employers a job description: Be flexible; think outside the box; play the long game; make adaptations and minor accommodations such as adjusting lighting or allowing ear plugs; look beyond the job description; and consider whether parts of the job can be altered or removed.
With this job description as a guide, employers who struggle to recruit and retain good workers may discover a great network of valuable employees and find a reason to do their own happy dance.
If you enjoyed this piece about living with autism, check out Caryn’s award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page,” available in paperback and electronic forms on Amazon.