Moving Beyond Acceptance

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Once again World Autism Day, recognized on April 2ND annually, is quietly approaching. In recent years, the entire month of April has been viewed as Autism Awareness month. There is little doubt the gains made as a result of promoting autism awareness have been significant. Lives have been transformed as enlightenment has been granted to the masses with regards to understanding the nuances of autism. While there is a long way to go, there have been some incredible accomplishments in the areas of education, technology, health care, and therapeutic interventions. Acceptance of autism is now generally practiced within most circles, with the hope of total inclusion as the ultimate goal. However, despite the monumental achievements made, the future of autism progress is based on action directed toward change. It is impossible to mandate attitudes, but we can influence decision making by demonstrating proactive measures leading to equality.

Positive action should occur early in the lives of children as they start the educational journey. Identifying children on the spectrum as early as possible is a wonderful start as providing essential interventions is vital for future growth. Taking the process a step further could include targeting key areas of interests or innate abilities and developing those areas through the child’s IEP. Having real time interactions with adults working and studying in the areas of the student’s previously identified “gift” will only serve to reinforce and motivate future success. Moreover, this is an excellent forum for the student to learn firsthand the finer details of his or her desired occupational choice. In addition to mentoring programs, having internships designed with the unique challenges adults on the spectrum face in the workplace would fill a huge void. Special needs internships could provide potential employers an opportunity to assess strengths and evaluate an intern’s capacity to navigate the work environment from a social standpoint. Conversely, the intern has the chance to determine if the area of potential employment is the right “fit” for them. But the greatest benefit is the mutual exchange which internships provide – without some of the restrictions of a formal employment agreement.

There is an exciting transition taking place in corporations around the world involving international employers and members of the autism community. Large corporations are increasingly more receptive to hiring employees on the autism spectrum. This certainly bodes well for the autism community as unemployment rates have consistently hovered around the 80% level. The game changer, however, is employer’s recognition of the importance of having job coaches involved in the work life of autistic employees. Job coaches, or transitional coaches as they are sometimes called, serve as a liaison between companies and special needs employees in matters related to socialization and navigating office politics.

Having an advocate is such an important piece of the employment puzzle for autistic employees, as many struggle with the nuances of corporate culture and appropriate interaction with co-workers. Talent and ability to perform certain types of jobs is usually not the issue for most people on the spectrum. In fact research indicates with proper training, autistic employees have proven to be productive, loyal, conscientious, and dedicated. The problem lies in not having mastery over “soft skills” such as conversing, social interacting, making eye contact, and a preference to work alone as opposed embracing a team concept. Job coaches are invaluable in bridging the communication gaps that occur all too often when working with employees on the autism spectrum. With continued growth in tolerance and broader diversity, the future workplace will evolve in striving to incorporate the unique talents and perspectives of those with autism.

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