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Dr. Peter Gerhardt, President for the Organization of Autism Research

Doctor Peter Gerhardt is the President for the Organization of Autism Research. Dr. Gerhardt has over twenty-five years experience working with adolescents and adults with autism, in education, employment and community environments. Dr. Gerhardt will discuss the current employment picture for individuals with autism.

Dr. Gerhardt what is the current employment picture for individuals with autism?

The current employment picture for individuals with autism is unfortunately bleak, I think is the appropriate term. However that is changing, it is changing for a number of good reasons. First of all I want to highlight we don’t have good employment data in the United States. Much of the employment research that we have comes for the UK where it looks like around ten to twelve percent of people with an autism spectrum disorder are employed but we even don’t know to what extent they are employed. So if we extrapolate that to the states that still gives us approximately a ninety percent unemployment rate. And given our fiscal and time investment in the lives of people with autism spectrum disorder for their educational years that should be considered an unacceptable outcome.

So why do you think the employment picture is so poor for individuals with autism?

I think the employment picture is so disappointingly bleak because of low estimates of what people can do, low expectations on behalf of all of us, not just the employers, but I think of professions and I even think of families. When I talk sometimes to parents, and I say your son or daughter is sixteen what do you see them doing? I often times get what has come to be a stock answer, well maybe they can stock shelves or bag groceries. I have to point out that if we completely screw up the entire transition plan he can still stock shelves or bag groceries. Now if he loves stocking shelves or bagging groceries that’s a different questions. Like if that’s his ideal holy grail of a job, that’s a very different issue. But to assume that that’s the most people can do is inaccurate, the opportunities that really exist out there are limited I think only by the imagination of the support personnel; whether they’re parents, professions or anyone else involved in the lives of people with autism. We’re the ones who have to sort of make this happen for them, which I think is well within our grabs.

Have you found that the adult services and the employers are prepared to have individuals with autism working with them?

Not entirely. I think the bigger crisis is in the adult services system where we have this expanding numbers of people with autism graduating out of their school age classes into the adult system. That system itself is not prepared really to handle this huge influx of these very complexes learners. The business community however I think is more open to it than it has in the past. They think they’re starting to see the benefit of hiring someone on the spectrum. I think one of the nice things about working with business, quite honestly, is that business exists for a reason, it’s to make money, and if I can convince a business owner that by hiring these people with autism you’ll make money, that’s a win for everybody. Working in the human services system it’s a little harder to convince because there isn’t this over riding definitional initiative what the end products going to be. That system’s a lot harder to work with sometimes within. I think the business community is primed really to look at employing people with autism spectrum disorders.

What are some of the strengths that a person with autism might bring to an employment situation?

It’s interesting; I get asked that question a lot, the answer I always give is it depends. Because as Stephen Shore has said, you’ve met one person with autism, you met one person with autism. I sometimes get a little dismayed when we keep saying things like, well people with autism like repetitive tasks. Well some people with autism like some repetitive tasks with tasks that they like. Just because they like doing this doesn’t mean they like doing that, so we need to move beyond that and we need to really look at these individual strengths and pairing individuals idiosyncrasys and challenges and strengths with the actual job. If we have someone who doesn’t like sitting, the idea of trying to get them a desk job isn’t going to work. So we really need to look at their own particular likes and dislikes, challenges, hopes, dreams, etc. Now having said that, there are some selling points that I can use when I talk to employers, people with autism no matter where they fall on the spectrum tend to be very honest, lying is a very complexed social skills so if you want an honest employee, hiring someone on the spectrum is probably a good bet. If you want someone who doesn’t gossip at the water fountain and comes back from their break on time, probably a person with autism is a good bet. If you want someone who is very meticulous with their attention to detail, looking into the autism community you can probably find people who are fascinated with making sure that everything is done particularly right. Now because of that they may not do it as quickly as some of your other employees, but I think as an employer you’re still looking for getting the job done right, so that can be a real advantage. It comes down to what does the individual person need but they’re still are generalities we can look at.

In general what can we do or what needs to be done to improve those bleak outcomes that we are seeing right now?

I think there are a couple things we need to do. One is going back and really looking at competent transition planning. Really giving individuals on the spectrum before they graduate a cadre of skills that really translate into real life success. I’m very tired of meeting adults with classic autism who can do a math worksheet but can’t use a public bathroom. There are no jobs doing math worksheets. I want someone who can navigate the environment. The fact of the matter is, if we look at all the educational dollars that we spend, compared to what the adult provider is going to get, we really need to do a much better job at teaching the right skills so the adult provider can at least maintain the right skills, as apposed to going back to square one because nobody really taught him or her how to succeed outside of the classroom. And this is across the spectrum, I don’t really care if you have an aspergers syndrome label and you have all A’s and you’re college bond, you still need to have some training in working as part of a group, and employability and social skills, going on a job interview, dressing for work. All this sort of stuff because these kids just don’t pick it up on their own, so they graduate out and then they have none of the necessary skills to access employment despite having degrees and honors and all this stuff. So our transition planning needs to get significantly better. The second thing is we really need to shift our autism awareness as a community, and this is a tough thing. It’s 2008, the community knows more about autism than it has ever known in the past, but what the community tends to know is that autism is significant, challenging, developmental disability that impacts the family and it’s costly, and it’s painful, and it’s this. Then we come along and say yes you can hire him, or he can be your neighbor, or he can be your friend, there’s a mixed message there, we need to start talking about competencies of people on the spectrum. We need to start celebrating the real success stories that are out there, so that we can show people, and not the success stories of the “easier” cases, the hard cases, that’s where the real success lies, it’s changing the life of who’s got some real significant challenges and helping them get a job, because then the rest is a little easier once you sort of can do that. So we need to change our whole take on autism awareness I think to acknowledge the fact that yes this is a significantly challenging and expensive development disability, absolutely, but they have a lot of competencies. Independent of what they’re label is, they’re still citizens of this country and still have the same rights as everybody else to be active, involved, and participating members of the community, so we need to focus on that. The third thing is that we need to get professionals and paraprofessionals interested and engaged in working with older learners. It’s very difficult today, at least in my experience, to hire truly competent job coaches, residential providers, direct care service staff, it’s very difficult because it’s not really seen as a career path. In many cases it’s seen as a stopgap, there’s very little prestige associated with it. If you work with younger learners you can say I’m a special education teacher, or an occupational therapist or speech pathologist. Saying your job coach? People go what is that? I work in a group home. Oh what you couldn’t get a real job? We need to make those careers desirable careers so people want to do that, and that’s going to take some level of professionalizing and making these careers worth pursuing over the long term. I joke about it, but because I’ve worked with adolescents and adults for the vast majority of my twenty-eight years, I have a career built almost entirely on the fact that no body else ever wanted my jobs. There’d be this opportunity to work with behaviorally involved group of individuals with autism, over the age of twenty one, who are aggressive, self injurious, and I was like yes I’ll do that, and I’m thinking now I have to interview with twenty other people, and no it was just me. We need to get people engaged and interested in supporting people into this true life of quality and dignity. That is the hallmark of what every parent wants for their child.

Is it important for individuals to have a job?

It’s very important for individuals to have a job. In North American it is the number one descriptor by how we identify ourselves as adults. You meet somebody new you say what is it you do? With ninety percent of people with autism not being employed, they can’t answer that question even if they have language so it’s critically important. The second thing is I have never met a person on the spectrum that didn’t know the difference between “make work” and “real work”. I don’t care what their cognitive level was, what there quote unquote functioning level was, once they were out at a real job, they knew the difference between sitting in a big room and assembling widgets or being actually a part of an employment force. The third part is our job is where we get our primary connectivity to our social community. And if you don’t have a job, you don’t have that access. Now yes because the person still has autism and they may not be proficient in making social connections, that’s a challenge, but the bigger challenge quiet honestly is not having the options to make those challenges. So by getting you in a job at least I give you the opportunity by giving you new skills, by training your coworker, by setting up the situation a little differently, I can now promote this level of social connectivity that you’re just not going to get anywhere else. Lastly, a little bit of money doesn’t hurt. Most of the people that I work with don’t really work for the paycheck; they work because they like what they’re doing. What they’re doing makes sense to them, they feel good, they’re competent, it’s a good thing, but at the same time, having some extra money to buy something that you might like, to make sure you have the CD’s that you want, or if you collect baseball cards, like those sort of things. It is an important natural support to get paid for your work. So when you put it all together, I think it’s a critical part of adult life, is being employed. I actually go so far to say it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for quality of life. So it’s that critical.

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