A hire purpose: Accommodating autism in the workplace

For adults with autism, finding steady employment can be difficult—even if they have no trouble performing the duties of the job. Here's how the UW is taking measures to prepare students with autism for life after college.

The din inside Café Allegro, a coffee bar wedged in a U District alley, is the usual: students discussing their social lives, classes and career goals. David Alvarez, who will graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in communication, is sipping a hot chocolate. The background noise is substantial, so he slips on a pair of specially designed ear buds so he can hear more clearly. Focus is often a big issue for Alvarez, whose autism was diagnosed in 2016 when he was age 27.

The road to his Husky cap and gown has been an unusual one. But persistence, resilience and a strong will to succeed will make graduation day especially joyous. His next step: entering the world of work. To do that, he will need to beat the odds.

Young adults with autism have many talents, but only 58 percent of them are employed (estimates vary), compared to 99 percent of young adults who don’t have disabilities. Talented young adults with autism who are of average or above-average intelligence are three times less likely to be employed than those with intellectual disabilities. Studies say the low employment rate of young adults with autism and no intellectual disabilities is caused by a lack of social skills, not the lack of ability to do the job.

The issue of employment for people with autism after the age of 21, when most school services end, is an urgent one. Gary Stobbe, a physician who is director of the UW Medicine Adult Autism Clinic, says, “The services for adults lag far behind early-intervention and school-age services. A lot of adults with autism are suffering. There are a lot of mental-health issues including depression and anxiety that also affect people with autism. The suicide rate is 10 times higher than for people who are typically functioning.” He says there is solid evidence showing that employment improves social skills, self-esteem and the ability to work with others. “It has a therapeutic effect,” he says.

A company in our own backyard is leading the way when it comes hiring people with autism. The Microsoft Autism Hiring Program consists of a one-week interview academy to prep candidates for job interviews, as well as a program to guide managers, colleagues and employees with autism toward success in the workplace. So far, Microsoft has hired more than 50 adults with autism since the program started three years ago.

Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and inclusion starts at the top. Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft, is the honorary chair of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, which kick off July 1 on the UW campus with 4,000 athletes and coaches as well as thousands of volunteers and fans. Microsoft is also the presenting sponsor of the Games. “Rise with Us” is the theme of this year’s Games and is also Smith’s invitation to Seattle residents and the global community to make this year’s event the most inclusive ever.

The UW has more reason than ever to prepare UW students with autism for the workplace. Jill Locke, research assistant professor in Speech & Hearing Sciences, says that in 2012, only five students disclosed that they had autism. Today that number is more than 80.

The UW is taking measures to prepare students with autism for employment. Locke, Stobbe and Hala Annabi, associate professor in the iSchool, received a research grant to study the effects of a program and curriculum designed to prepare UW students with autism who want to work in IT.

The approach is innovative because most research and services concentrate on the transition from high school to college but not to the workforce. There isn’t much research about what young people with autism need in order to make the move from higher education to the workforce.

Autistic UW students in this program are mentored, coached and then given the opportunity to shadow IT workers and visit companies like Microsoft, where they’d like to work.

“One of the things we know about people with autism is that structure and explicit directions are needed,” Annabi says. “When you think of preparation, you have to think of recruitment, onboarding, retention and advancement. That’s the life cycle of the workplace. Jill and I developed a program that helps students gain skills and to advocate for themselves. They learn about soft skills like networking, communication and collaboration. It’s a research program with a curriculum component.”

Right now, the program only applies to students with autism who want to work in IT. The goal, though, is to expand the program to include other disciplines and fields of work—and then create a program that can be replicated by other universities. Microsoft, which is collaborating with the UW, has staff on the program’s advisory board.

The UW has implemented Project Search. Students with autism in their senior year of high school in Seattle Public Schools are placed in internships at various sites on the UW campus. Through a series of three targeted internships, students learn competitive, marketable skills that will make job interviews and success more likely. Some sites include the IMA and Waterfront Activities Center, the School of Music, Transportation Services and the Classics Department.

Seven young men and women, all ages 20 or 21, spent time during the past school year at 10 locations on campus. By next year, the program aims to serve 10 students through 15 internship sites at the UW.

Since 2015, the UW Speech & Hearing Sciences Department led by Locke and Lauren Nehilla joined the Disability Resources for Students Office to offer peer mentoring through a program called MOSSAIC, which was originally developed by the University of Montana.

Currently, peer students are being recruited all across campus. Peer mentors help with such issues as: How do I ask my professor for a meeting? How can I manage my time better so I can be on time for my 9 a.m. class? What is the etiquette during a dinner that’s part of a job interview? The program also involves a study café, undergraduate seminar and bi-quarterly social events.

During the program’s first years, student mentors were recruited only from Speech & Hearing Sciences. Next fall, any UW student who wants to be a mentor can apply.

Nawal Syeda, a senior who plans to become a speech language pathologist, served as a mentor to Alvarez for the 2017-18 school year. At first, she was cautious in her weekly meetings with him.

“I was afraid to say the wrong thing,” she explains. “I had a shallow idea of the autism spectrum because of media portrayals. I have been lucky to gain new insight.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) poses significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. People with ASD may communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways that are different from most people. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.

Alvarez’s story is a bit unique because he was diagnosed considerably later than most people with autism.

“I wish I had had this diagnosis at age 7 instead of age 27,” he says. Although it came during his time at the UW, the diagnosis allowed him to receive an accommodation; he was allowed to take a lighter course load and still retain his financial aid. This accommodation helped him reach his goal to graduate in June. He didn’t achieve a 4.0 grade-point average or make the dean’s list until he received the accommodation.

“The reduced credit load of 10 credits allowed me to focus and go in-depth in my classes, rather than having breadth and being overwhelmed. It’s hard to explain but taking two classes made a significant difference in my physical and mental capabilities instead of taking three or sometimes more classes,” says Alvarez.

Alvarez eventually wants to work in higher education. He believes there are two few Latinx (a gender-neutral term for Latino/a individuals) people in leadership positions at colleges and universities. Eventually, he plans to attend graduate school, although his short-term goal is finding a job.

Alvarez has been offered a position as NASPA undergraduate fellow at the University of Missouri Inclusive Excellence Strategic Mapping Program. NASPA is the leading association for the advancement, health and sustainability of the student affairs profession. In fall 2018, he will begin as Unite UW Early Fall Start Program leader. Unite UW is an on-campus cultural exchange program that builds bridges between domestic and international students. Alvarez hopes to continue doing research on transfer students as part of his thesis and/or work an administrative position at a community college before going to graduate school in two or three years.

Alvarez explains his autism, having a job interview and potential employment this way: “There are people who audition well but can’t act. Then there are people who don’t audition well but do a great job. That’s me.”