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Strike a Chord: Autism and the Job Hunt

Many companies employ Autism at Work programs to increase employment opportunities for people on the spectrum.

Many companies employ Autism at Work programs to increase employment opportunities for people on the spectrum.
(Photo Credit: Flickr)


Only 14% of people with autism have jobs that pay. Two initiatives are trying to change that.

Job interviews are difficult for everyone. But for some people with autism there's a greater challenge than just saying the right things. 
PJ Maresca was always nervous when he walked into an interview.  "I had never worn a suit before and that was something that was very uncomfortable for me," he said. "I kept pulling at my neckline."
Maresca has a masters degree in data science from the University of Texas at Austin. He maintained a 4.0 the entire time he was there. He also never told any of his potential employers about his diagnosis because he feared they'd view it as a weakness. "I was led to believe that telling someone I was on the spectrum was kind of a crutch. Then they might look at me even more negatively for using it," Maresca said.
Now, he works in the Digital Business Services group at SAP, a German software company. Maresca was hired through SAP's Autism at Work program. The initiative allows people with autism to forgo the traditional interview route. Instead, candidates go through a six-week long job training program, where they complete tasks like building legos and other team building activities. Prospective candidates are paired with a mentor who works within the company. If the person applies to a position in SAP and is hired at the end of the program, then that mentor helps with their transition into being a full time employee. 
Jose Velasco runs SAP's Autism at Work program in the U.S. Velasco said there shouldn't be a stigma with hiring people with autism. "Individuals on the spectrum can bring a significant amount of value. There's a very significant pool of talent out there that is kind of waiting for that opportunity," he said.
SAP has hired around 150 employees through their Autism at Work program. In the next five years, Velasco wants the number of people with autism in the company to increase to 600, which would make up 10 percent of the workforce.
SAP isn't the only company to have an Autism at Work program. Chase, Microsoft and Ford Motor Company also have programs in place to recruit autistic candidates. 
That said, finding employment if you have autism is still hard. According to the National Autism Indicators report by Drexel University, only 14% of adults with autism have jobs that pay.
One program trying to change that is Job Path NYC. Fredda Rosen, the CEO of Job Path, said one of the reasons the employment number for people with autism is so low is because they may have trouble communicating their skills in an interview setting. "For many people, the typical route of getting a job is: looking for a job opening, going through the interview process. That may work for some people with autism, but it doesn't work for a lot of people with autism."
Job Path contacts specific company departments to see if they have any thing that they're having problems with or if another person could help them out with specific tasks. From there, they try and get an interview for the prospective candidate. Rosen said they specifically tailor their program based on each individuals needs. "People may need to work in a quieter place, where you don't have a lot of people around. Other people may want a lot of people contact. We're all different that way. People with autism are no different than any of us."
According to Rosen, 85% of people who walk into Job Path, walk out employed. 
Take Mikhail Shklyarevsky. He works at the Frick Collection. Job Path helped him get an internship there last year, and he was hired a couple months after. Shklyarevsky said it helped that the Frick knew he had autism from the very beginning. "When I was working at the Frick, what happened was that they did know about me having autism. So we were able to tailor the work environment, so that it ended up working for both my supervisors and for me as well."
At the Frick Collection, Shkarevsky helps translate Russian texts into English. He also has some advice for people with autism who are struggling with the job search.
"Don't give up, you'll make it through it. Even if you're having a difficult time use this time to develop your skills, develop your networking skills and develop your abilities."
Shklyarevsky said that if people with autism keep trying to find employment through programs like Autism at Work and Job Path than more people will recognize that people with autism deserve to be employed just like anyone else.