Finding Space for People With Autism

Cover art by Ico Munar

The colorful interlocking puzzle pieces, which makes the Autism Awareness Month ribbon stand out, represents more than the condition’s complexity and the diversity of its community. The ribbon itself serves as a rallying point for understanding, promoting hope, as well as inclusion in critical services, and programs, as well employment.

Workforce inclusion and employment may be the biggest hurdle for individuals within the autism spectrum, and one of the advocacies highlighted in the monthly commemoration of Autism Awareness Month. The figures itself reveal the story—

World Health Organization says approximately 1 percent of the world’s population has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) while CDC stats estimate a prevalence of 1 in 68 births in the U.S. What happens to individuals with autism when they reach employment age?

A National Autism Indicators Report from Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute reveals bleak prospects for individuals with ASD. According to the report, “58 percent of young adults on the autism spectrum worked for pay outside the home between high school and their early 20s – a rate far lower than young adults with other types of disabilities. Meanwhile, “4 in every 10 young adults on the autism spectrum never worked for pay between high school and their early 20s,” while “those who got jobs tended to work part-time in low-wage jobs.” The report is based on data collected from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 and the Survey of Pathways to Diagnosis.

While sectoral employment data is lacking on island, Benito S. Servino, director Department of Integrated Services for individuals with Disabilities, assured that there are programs available to help individuals with ASD prepare and integrate into the workforce.

DISID was established under Guam P.L 24-16 as the designated single point of entry agency that provides, promotes and ensures a full continuum of lifelong programs and services that allows for independence, productivity and inclusion of people with disabilities into the community. “Individuals may apply for DISID’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) Program Services and if determined eligible, they may be able to receive services to achieve an employment outcome that includes assessment, counseling and guidance, referral, and restoration,” he said.

DVR offers job-related services, including job search and placement assistance, job retention and follow-up services, vocational and other training, maintenance & transportation services, on-the-job training services, supported employment, job coaching, and self-employment assistance. The division also provides interpreter, reader, transition, and assistance in acquiring rehabilitation technology.

Servino said the department also has an Independent Living Services (ILS) Program that provides support to the State Independent Living Council (SILC) and provides services to qualified Individuals with disabilities that includes information and referral services, independent living skills training, peer counseling (including cross-disability peer counseling), individual and systems advocacy, education and training necessary for living in a community and participating in community activities.

The wide range of services also include providing access to consumer information programs on rehabilitation and independent living services, especially for minorities and other individuals with disabilities, who have traditionally been unserved or underserved by programs. Community awareness programs to enhance the understanding and integration into society of individuals within the autism spectrum are also available to help potential employers.

Servino said a number of DISID’s community service provider partners may also offer other types of services for their clients to help them acquire independent living skills. These services include personnel management, hygiene and grooming, interpersonal skills, home maintenance, money management, cooking, resource utilization, and medication management.

According to Servino, the IPE will identify the employment outcome, service providers, services, timelines, summarize client/VR counselor responsibilities, and identify financial resources that will pay for the services which will lead to employment. “Before purchasing VR services, the VR Counselor must first determine whether comparable services and benefits exist under any other program and whether or not they are available to the individual to meet, in whole or in part, the costs of VR services,” he said, adding, “Once the client has been placed in a job for over 90 days, his case would be considered for successful closure.”

Servino said there is also the Client Assistance Program Services for those with service provision concerns. “If they are concerned or have issues about the services that they are receiving from DVR, CAP is available to assist persons with disabilities to understand the VR Program, to advise individuals of available benefits during the rehabilitation process at the time of application, eligibility, IPE development, or case progress,” he said.

Under CAP, clients will be assisted in their pursuit of legal, administrative, or other available remedies to ensure the protection of rights under the Rehabilitation Act, he said. CAP will also investigate any problem areas in the delivery of VR services and improve the relationship between the Client and the VR Counselor.

The division receives federal and local funds to administer these programs through a federal state grant. Servino said funding for VR Services is calculated at 78.7 percent of the total grant amount, with annual federal allotments at approximately $2.9 million. Meanwhile, the annual local match allotment is approximately $609,000. “The program provides vocational rehabilitation services to help qualified individuals with a physical or mental impairment to prepare for, enter, engage in, or retain gainful competitive employment,” he said.

Servino identified several program challenges, including the lack of reliable transportation services for clients to get to work on time. There is also the employer’s fears, lack of understanding and receptiveness of hiring and working with people within the autism spectrum. “There is also the lack of knowledge that employers have about communicating with people with disabilities and the accommodations that could be provided on the job,” he said.

Although the programs are listed, Servino said there is still a need to firm up working relations with Community Rehabilitation Providers to develop and implement these services such as on-the-job training, work exploration, vocational training.

On the national level, technology has been identified as an industry sector that could potentially incorporate individuals with ASD within their workforce. Just recently, a group of companies launched the “5000 Initiative: Autism in Tech Workforce,” with the objective of training and employing people with autism in technology positions. The initiative estimates providing 5,000 jobs by the year 2020.

According to Launchability, “employers are seeing advantages to hiring these individuals, many of whom have strengths that lend to succeeding in technology – often quality assurance, data services and software and website testing.” The 5000 Initiative was launched in March 2016 in Dallas at a summit hosted by Meticulon, MindSpark and LaunchAbility and powered by AT&T.

Chad Hahn, partner of Optimity Advisors and co-founder of MindSpark, in the release said, "As the race for competitive IT talent continues, organizations of all sizes must continually innovate and explore ways to remain competitive for job seekers – while strengthening their inclusive cultures for employees of all abilities.”

"There's a critical workforce need for these positions at many companies, but a gap exists between the training and access into these roles that those with autism haven't been able to cross," said LaunchAbility CEO Kathryn Parsons. "By training and employing individuals with specialized abilities, companies will maximize the professional and social opportunities in an environment that allows these individuals to thrive."

Aside from the 5000 initiative, several tech companies in the U.S have also incorporated proactive hiring policies. Microsoft, for example, has launched a program to hire individuals with autism. Mary Ellen Smith, corporate vice president of worldwide operations, announced Microsoft’s plans, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City during World Autism Day.