by Lonnie Pacelli
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Special intelligence Unit 9900 is dedicated to everything related to geography, including mapping, interpretation of aerial and satellite photographs, and space research. Within this unit there is another, smaller unit of highly qualified soldiers who can detect even the smallest details—the ones usually undetectable to most people.
These soldiers all have one thing in common; they are on the autism spectrum. Their job is to take visual materials from satellite images and sensors in the air. With the help of officers and decoding tools, they analyze the images and find specific objects within the images that are necessary to provide the best data to those planning missions. The IDF has also found that soldiers with autism can focus for longer periods of time than their neurotypical counterparts.
This story speaks to me personally. My son Trevor was diagnosed with autism at age five. The only thing I knew about autism at the time was Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman character. Raising a son on the spectrum drastically changed my point of view on disability inclusion, seeing strengths through the challenges, and cultivating those strengths while accommodating the challenges. He’s a grown man today, living on his own, working, paying his bills, saving money, and building relationships. His strengths outweigh his challenges.
The same reckoning with his strengths and challenges can lead to success with overseeing how an organization thrives, but how do you begin to ensure inclusion of disabled people’s strength in the workplace at scale with at an organization level? It has to start at the board and C-suite level.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines a disability as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).” A disability can:
In 2018 Accenture published an outstanding research report entitled Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage. Some of the statistics in the report are eye-opening:
The Disability Equality Index (DEI) is a joint project between the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN (formerly known as the US Business Leadership Network). DEI’s primary goal is to provide a benchmarking tool to help companies assess disability inclusion policies and practices in six key areas:
Organizations complete a survey (DEI estimates between 30-40 hours to complete), send it into DEI, and receive an objective score on their disability inclusion practices and opportunities for improvement. DEI puts respondents achieving 80 percent or better on their website, with companies like Accenture, Microsoft Corp., AT&T, The Walt Disney Co., Capital One Financial Corp., and Boeing Co. achieving a score of 100 percent. DEI has an advisory committee comprised of corporate and nonprofit executives and advocates who advise on benchmarking topics and questions.
While it’s a commitment to complete the survey, it gives an organization an honest and introspective lens into their culture, policies, and practices on disability inclusion and is valuable to help identify areas where an organization needs to improve.
This isn’t fluff stuff. The Accenture report notes several tangible results of those organizations that embraced a disability inclusion culture.
As a board, make it a priority to work with the senior leadership team to understand your company’s disability inclusion position and ensure disability inclusion is baked into the culture, not just an add-on project. Here are three things you can do to get started:
Disability inclusion is not just a social responsibility buzzword meant to enhance reputation. There’s tangible business value to be had. As a board, your accountability is to ensure your organization is promoting a culture where the business benefits can be realized.
by Lonnie Pacelli
Recently our son Trevor published a blog post entitled Every Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Ranked Worst to Best. In this post, he ranks, from 90 to one, each and every Oscar winner since Wings won the very first Oscar in 1928. Each winner is listed by the movie name, year it won, a picture from the movie, and a review summary. It took him three years to watch, review and rank the movies, which he did in addition to living a full work and social life. The ranking list, whether you agree with where they fall or not, is not only a fun read but is a major achievement for Trevor.
A bit more on Trevor. He was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age five (the clinical diagnosis was Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified or PDD-NOS). He has always been high-functioning with some social and communication challenges that typically accompany someone like him. Today he is 26, has a bachelor’s degree in Film & Media Studies from Arizona State University, lives on his own, has a job, and supports himself. He will have some challenges for the rest of his life, but as he gets older, he has become much more self-aware of his strengths and challenges. My wife Patty and I are incredibly proud of him.
As I was reading through his movie rankings, something much deeper than movie reviews emerged for me. What struck me was the number of Trevor’s strengths that give him the ability to review, rank, and communicate the 90 movies, as follows:
Look at the above strengths. Most any leader would love to see a list of strengths like that in an employee. Couple these with subject matter training and you’ve got a vibrant, contributing member of the workforce.
Another great example of unearthing strengths is the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The IDF uses soldiers on the autism spectrum to scan visual materials from satellites and air sensors to identify minute troop changes. They found that soldiers on the spectrum can better focus and get less fatigued than their neurotypical counterparts. It’s a strength that fills an important security need.
Take the initiative to understand how people with disabilities can contribute to your organization by doing the following:
According to Accenture’s research report Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, there are 15 million Americans of working age living with a disability and only 29% of those participate in the workforce. It’s your responsibility as leaders to look at the strengths that exist in this vastly untapped pool and align them to the needs in your organization. Oh, and back to Trevor’s Oscar rankings, want to know what’s number 90 and number one? You’ll have to look for yourself 😊.
By Patty Pacelli
Human beings were made to work, and adults with autism are no different. Employment leads to a better mood, higher self-esteem, and improved physical health. It allows autistic adults to further develop their skills and understanding. Our son Trevor liked being around people and enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment at his jobs.
This is why it's important to instill the idea of working in autistic children as early as possible by expecting them to do chores around the house and outdoors, including them in volunteer work and asking them to clean and take care of their own room and bathroom or other space. As they get into middle school and high school, talk to them about what kind of job they might want when they grow up, and encourage their ideas, even if they seem unrealistic to you at the time.
Our son has gone through some challenges with having jobs and finding new jobs, but we have continued to encourage and support him, and have not given up. Keep researching and networking and doing volunteer work while job-hunting.
For more about the workplace and people with autism, see my book, Six-Word Lessons for Autism-Friendly Workplaces. I wish you the best in finding work for yourself or the autistic adult in your life.
By Lucy Wyndham, freelance writer
Neurodiversity is the idea that the neurological differences behind autism, ADHD, and many other intellectual disabilities are the result of normal variations in the human genomes and not pathologies to be cured. Autistic individuals have long found it difficult to find employment, but as the concept of neurodiversity is beginning to take root, companies have begun to recognize the benefit of hiring neurodiverse talent.
1 in 68 people has been identified on the autism spectrum in the United States. Despite the fact that it is often associated with higher than average intelligence and traits such as the ability to focus, passion, honesty, and attention to detail, individuals with autism are often seen as unemployable due to their problems with social skills.
Thanks to increased pressure to innovate, however, companies are finding that accommodations in their hiring and onboarding processes can result in significant growth for their organizations. Indeed, these new hiring initiatives are less about inclusion and more about their impact on the bottom line. In fact, two giant multinationals that have specifically created neurodiverse hiring initiatives and reported generating significant innovations as a result--in one example, innovations led to a $40 million savings.
Higher productivity, better problem solving, and more creative innovation doesn’t have to be limited to just a handful of companies. In fact, other organizations can learn from their examples and adopt one or both of the following changes to increase neurodiversity in their workforces.
1. Change the Hiring Process
Traditional hiring processes rely heavily on the interview, which is skewed towards extroverts and people with high levels of emotional intelligence. While it’s not uncommon to find autistic candidates with one or more high-level degrees in the application pools, these candidates tend to do very poorly in interviews, as they often struggle with things like eye contact and conversation tangents.
Instead of the interview, companies might consider adopting a different kind of application process. In its pilot program designed to hire people with Asperger’s, Ernst & Young ditches the interview and uses informal settings and tasks (building a robot) to assess candidates.
2. Provide Support Across the Board
If the company's’ goal is to drive results, creating support teams to assist neurodiverse candidates through the hiring and onboarding processes (and beyond) is important. Companies can often work with nonprofit or government agencies (such as the Arc) to provide social skills training and make minor workplace accommodations (such as providing headphones to limit auditory overstimulation). Additionally, commercial landlords are responsible for accessibility in their properties, which ensures that those with special needs can move around comfortably within the building. It is up to employers as tenants to ensure that these regulations are up to standard.
It’s also important to engage managers and coworkers, who benefit from up front communication about accommodations needed by neurodiverse new hires, and who find themselves needing to manage for the individual, instead of managing compliance to a set of rigid standards.
Finding and accommodating neurodiverse talent might require operational changes, but its benefits far outstrip its costs. Organizations that want to actively recruit and hire employees with autism can make tremendous progress by changing how they hire and providing support across the board to coworkers and managers, as well as the employees themselves.
Northwest Center of Seattle recently hired Trevor Pacelli, a young adult on the autism spectrum, and one of his duties is to write blog posts for the company. In this post, he has written about his experiences with his past jobs and the varying degrees of inclusion in those workplaces.
Northwest Center is a nonprofit company that " . . . was founded in 1965 by parents who refused to institutionalize their children with developmental disabilities or accept the prevailing notion that their children couldn't be taught. Banding together to form Northwest Center, they hired their own teachers to develop education programs targeted to special needs children." (NWCenter.org) Their mission is "to promote the growth, development and independence of people with disabilities through programs of education, rehabilitation, and work opportunity."
Trevor is thankful and excited to be working for Northwest Center.
By Patty Pacelli
Independent living is an important goal for young adults with autism, and studies have shown that it can lead to better employment success. The process can start early in life, and there are several things to help meet this goal while still living at home.
Your Child as a Roommate - During your child's late teens or early twenties, if still living at home, treat your student more like a roommate and have expectations of them as if they were living on their own, such as doing their own laundry, keeping their own room or space clean (or not), buying their own food and toiletries, and anything else that had been provided when they were younger. To do this, they will need an allowance or "salary" of some kind, which will help them learn (with your instruction) to manage money. Have them pay you rent, and at least some of their car or transportation expenses, and some of their personal purchases. Along with this, get them started with a simple budgeting spreadsheet to manage their bills, purchases, and even some savings. We did this with both of our children, regardless of an autism spectrum diagnosis.
Moving Out - When your child does move out on their own, give them a lot of encouragement to do things their own way, but be available to help them as well. Depending on your relationship and your child, you may need to back off a little more than you'd like, or you may have to force them to do more on their own. Our son was very excited to be on his own, and wanted to arrange his items in his new place by himself, but some young adults might be too dependent on their parents, and the parents might need to push them to do more on their own. We tried to find the balance between making sure Trevor was living successfully and keeping safe, while letting him do things his way, even if he made some mistakes or it wasn't perfect.
Living independently, whether in stages while still at home, or in their own place, leads to greater self-esteem, confidence, household skills, knowledge and comfort with social situations, especially when living with roommates. This leads to less stress and more confidence and ability to learn new skills in the workplace.
For more about autism and preparing your child for employment, check out my book, Six-Word Lessons for Autism-Friendly Workplaces - Patty Pacelli
By Patty Pacelli
Like many people with autism, our son Trevor has always been very aware of time, and likes to stick to a schedule. He owned and used a watch from preschool on, and that attention to timeliness helped him when he had a job. Because autistic individuals thrive on routine, schedules and predictability, they will rarely, if ever, be late to work or meetings, which is a dream for employers.
Trevor's job doing nightly security lock-up at a church was perfect for him, because he never forgot to show up and do the very important job of securing a public building. His supervisor said Trevor was his "right-hand man" and he was more reliable than many of his other employees, and he could always count on him to do what he was asked. He took "literally no supervision" and he didn't have to check up on him. "As a supervisor, that's huge," he said.
For more tips on helping prepare kids with autism for the workplace, and to learn how employers can take advantage of the special skills of people with autism, check out Patty's book, Six-Word Lessons for Autism-Friendly Workplaces.
By Patty Pacelli
For children on the autism spectrum, start career planning as soon as your child starts developing interests. The elementary school years are perfect for this, but at least by age 14. Taking note of their interests, especially their passions, can help them pursue and cultivate them. If they talk about dreams that seem unrealistic, encourage them anyway. You never know what they will be capable of as they grow and develop.
Take their interests a step further by finding household tasks or volunteer work that will help them explore and develop their passions while learning good basic work skills and lead to independence and better employment.
For more about preparing your child with autism for the workplace, check out Six-Word Lessons for Autism-Friendly Workplaces, in paperback and e-book.
By Patty Pacelli
Parents should begin thinking about employment for their children on the autism spectrum when they are very young. Involving them in household chores, volunteer work and other projects will help prepare them for employment later on. Our son Trevor had weekly chores and took care of his own needs as much as possible, and as early as possible. He was choosing his own clothes, making his own breakfast, and getting himself up in the morning with an alarm by about 10 years old. By middle school, he was making his own lunch to take to school as well. He learned to take care of the cat, clean the bathroom and vacuum in elementary school as well. He found comfort in these weekly chores because of his need for routine and schedule-keeping. These tasks can help your child to become a dependable employee later on.
In middle school and high school, job-shadowing and other similar opportunities, such as volunteer work in different areas, are great preparation for people on the spectrum to start exploring what they might want to do for a career or a part-time job.
As parents, the more you can keep your child's adult future in mind and look for ways to prepare for it, the better. Find more about autism and work in my book, Six-Word Lessons for Autism-Friendly Workplaces. --Patty Pacelli
Inspiration for Life with Autism
This blog has a variety of articles about people living life with autism, and topics and ideas that can help in the journey. Guest bloggers are welcome. Inspired by Trevor, a young adult film critic, photographer and college graduate on the autism spectrum.