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Autism at Work: Breaking Barriers to Independence

Autism at Work

April 1, 2022

Your first paycheck … do you remember that moment? I was 16 and had just finished my first two weeks at Nevada Parks and Recreation where I had put in 20 hours making minimum wage. The check wasn’t much but it was more than I had ever earned before, and I remember what I felt — a sense of independence — I earned that money, and I could decide how to use it. That first paycheck gave me choices I didn’t previously have, and it was the best feeling. Fast forward to the first time one of my clients at Easterseals received their first check and I’m telling you; their reaction is something I will never ever forget. While we both felt joy, the barriers that my clients must get through to earn that first paycheck are things I cannot even imagine. Individuals with disabilities are often told they can’t or shouldn’t work, that they can’t learn the skills they need to be successful, or they don’t “need” to work. Many have to overcome barriers in their own families before they can even start to think about finding a job.

According to the Department of Labor, we continue to see a trend of individuals with disabilities being unemployed or underemployed. The unemployment rate is two times higher for those with disabilities — 9.7% vs. 4% for their typically developing peers. Considering the innumerable benefits of employing persons with disabilities and the current workforce shortage, this just doesn’t add up. I’m often asked, “Why should I hire people with disabilities?” My answer is simple … why wouldn’t you?

Raising Awareness in April

April marks World Autism Awareness Month, a great opportunity for us as a Greater Des Moines (DSM) community to think about how each of us can affect change by hiring candidates with diverse abilities. This is a hugely untapped labor market. Hiring persons living on the Autism spectrum can help strengthen your company culture, help you to connect with the diversity of your team and help you connect and be more relatable to the individuals who might consume your goods and services.

At Easterseals, we’ve had the incredible pleasure of working with Sam Wallendal, supporting him with his career goals. Sam started as a part-time employee at John Deere Financial, working on administrative tasks. His supervisor was so impressed with his accuracy and efficiency that she continued to give him more responsibilities, eventually offering him a full-time position. Sam is non-verbal and on the autism spectrum, he uses a communication device to converse with his colleagues and working independently brings him a great deal of joy! I hope you take a moment and listen to all of Sam’s Story — he’s a remarkable person and one of many individuals with autism who is having great success in the workforce.

This April, I challenge you to find your Sam! Don’t be afraid to invest a little in some assistive technology or additional supports for a new team member with Autism, the benefits your company and other team members will get in return are immeasurable. To learn more about diversifying your workforce and creating an inclusive environment for persons with disabilities, check out this great article from SHRM about the many benefits of employing persons with Autism. If you’re ready to start hiring, reach out to me at Easterseals so we can help you find a great match!

I’ll leave you with one final thought to carry with you through this Autism Awareness Month, a wonderful quote from an anonymous author, “Forget about the things they can’t do and focus on what they can. Everyone is much more than a diagnosis written on paper.”

Greater Des Moines (DSM) welcomes diverse talent to the region. As one of the fastest growing business communities, inclusion and attracting diverse talent in the workplace is a key strategy of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. Learn more here.

Mindy Burr

Mindy Burr is the director of vocational services at Easterseals Iowa. Mindy started with Easterseals in 2001 and found her passion - supporting individuals with disabilities to find and maintain meaningful employment in our community. Mindy has held several leadership positions and is a graduate of UNI.