By Tracy Powell-Rudy (née Wolff)
When I graduated from Horace Greeley High School in 1980, the national incidence rate for autism was 1 in 10,000. When my son started at Grafflin Elementary School in Chappaqua in the 1990s, it had risen to 1 in 2,500. By the time my daughter was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS)+ early in the new millennium, the autism incidence rate was 1 in 150.
Today the incidence rate is 1 in 68. And today, I serve as Director of Corporate Engagement for the Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership (ASTEP).
On the surface, the statistics alone can be daunting. However, with early intervention, many children with an autism diagnosis are going on to graduate from high school, and over one-third of those high school graduates are going on to some form of post-secondary education including college*. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news: of the one-third who do attend college, 75-85% are unemployed or underemployed after graduation, compared with the 28% unemployment rate for all college graduates**.
In many ways, individuals with Asperger’s or similar autism spectrum profiles are ideal employees. They often have a solid work ethic, strongly adhere to rules and are direct and very honest. On the other hand, they can also be very literal, speak with a professorial tone and can have a hard time making eye contact. As a result, and despite the aforementioned strengths–and I speak from prior experience as principal of a retained executive search firm –AS individuals are often screened out during the initial interview process.
Greeley Grad (’80) Meets
Greeley Grad (’09)
Last fall, I met and began working with a local young man who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at age nine in 2000 and who, like me, also graduated from Greeley. His name is Luke Davis***.
After spending time with Luke, I was hard-pressed to understand why the unemployment rate for individuals with Asperger’s is so high. Luke, along with many other young adults who have worked closely with ASTEP, is able to navigate the complexities of a college campus and the rigors of a college curriculum at higher institutions of learning such as Rutgers, RIT, Oberlin, Brandeis, Skidmore, Columbia, and the CUNY and SUNY systems. Indeed, many colleges and universities now provide strong support programs and services for individuals with Asperger’s. Likewise, forward-thinking companies, especially those that see the benefits of creating diverse and inclusive work environments, are working towards doing the same.
“The Best Kind of Support System”
Though Luke spoke later than most children his age, today he speaks with thoughtful clarity and unique insight. Likewise, though he acknowledges that networking is not his strongest suit, Luke credits his elementary school with offering the “best kind of support system, the best kind of environment” in which to grow. He further credits his parents with making sure his education was centered on the fact that he just processed things differently than his peers did.
Luke graduated from SUNY Purchase in May of 2014 with a B.A. in Liberal Studies and has since worked in various video production internship positions. He currently works in the Document Management department at the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, where he preps case files to be digitally archived. While the position appeals to Luke as an active visual worker, and requires an acute attention to detail that most do not possess, it nonetheless quickly becomes clear to anyone lucky enough to chat with Luke that the work is not commensurate with his experience and skill set. Almost hesitantly, Luke acknowledges this. The situation reveals a few remarkable takeaways: the first is Luke’s positive yet unyieldingly honest approach. The second is a clear illustration of the underemployment issue.
ASTEP Steps In
Founded by Marcia Scheiner in 2010, ASTEP is a 501(c)3 organization providing consulting services in the form of assessment, sensitivity awareness and accommodation training, on-boarding, mentoring and recruitment to Fortune 1000 employers interested in hiring and retaining this untapped workforce. ASTEP’s mission is to improve the quality of life of individuals with Asperger Syndrome and similar autism profiles by working with employers to create inclusive work environments that lead to suitable and sustainable employment opportunities.
Making the Connection Between Employers and Recent Graduates
During the fall of 2014, Luke attended ASTEP’s Corporate Lecture Series in New York City. “Our Corporate Lecture Series provides the opportunity for a two-way interaction between employers and individuals with Asperger’s,” said Marcia Scheiner, ASTEP’s President. To date, ASTEP has held successful events in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, including companies such as NBCUniversal, PwC, Oracle, Cisco, LinkedIn, EY, Quirky, Barclays, Turner Sports and Northwestern Mutual.
Each two-hour event is broken down into three sections: company presentations, interactive exercises and a networking session for attendees and company representatives. To prepare student-attendees for the job search process, the program focuses on improving networking skills, refining personal career goals, understanding corporate culture and developing a personal brand as a job candidate. Companies participating in the event learn about integrating individuals with Asperger Syndrome or similar autism profiles into the workplace and the special capabilities these potential employees possess. Since its inception in 2011, over 80 students have completed ASTEP’s corporate lecture series program, and several of our client-companies have or are starting to create internships, temporary/permanent positions and mentoring programs to support the hiring of these individuals and others as a result of their work with us.
“Dreaming Up What Else Is Out There”
To Luke, the best thing about working with ASTEP was being able to see how various corporations function, and to see how willing they are to work with people who have disabilities. It gave him a different perspective and allowed him to understand just what kinds of possibilities are available to him –as he put it, “dreaming what else is out there.”
If he had to communicate just one thing, what would it be? Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), his response was directed at the parents of young adults with Asperger Syndrome and similar autism profiles: “Tell your children that this so-called disability does not have to hinder or inhibit them. Tell them that there are resources out there, and they do not have to fear being judged.”
I’d like to echo Luke’s sentiment and, as a parent, add a final note: if I had to communicate just one thing, I’d tell the parents that they can help drive this change. Changed attitudes lead to changed behaviors. Many of ASTEP’s relationships with employers have been facilitated by parents who are executives in Fortune 1000 companies eager to champion inclusivity around Asperger’s and similar autism profiles.
As we complete our fifth series and the holiday season approaches, all of us at ASTEP would like to extend our warmest “thanksgivings” to the many companies, parents, young adults and our countless other champions, and invite you to reach out to us to explore how to engage this untapped pool of capable and talented young adults.
+ “Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s syndrome, Asperger disorder (AD) or simply Asperger’s, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.” Wikipedia
* Roux, AM, Shattuck, PT, Cooper, BP, Anderson, KA, et al. (2013). “Postsecondary employment experiences among young adults with an autism spectrum disorder” – Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(9), 931.
** BLS Monthly Labor Review, 2013
*** We respect and support Luke’s request to use an alias for his last name so that he retains control over if, when and how he discloses his diagnosis to a prospective employer.
For more information about how your company can work with ASTEP, contact Tracy Powell-Rudy at email@example.com.
Tracy Powell-Rudy (HGHS ’80) currently serves as ASTEP’s Director of Corporate Engagement. Prior to joining ASTEP, Tracy spent six years in executive search as Principal with a premier retained global search firm. Earlier, Tracy worked in technology and telecommunications leading MCI’s Northeast Division IT organization. Tracy graduated Summa Cum Laude from Manhattanville College, and has an MS in Telecommunications Management with honors from NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. She has also served locally as both producer and board member for The Armonk Players community theater and on the CCSD’s Special Education Parent Committee.