This is a post by Dr. Scott Standifer, a Clinical Assistant Professor for the Disability Policy & Studies office (DPS) at the University of Missouri. He is the author of Adult Autism & Employment: A guide for vocational rehabilitation professionals, and the organizer of the Autism Works National Conference, March 6 & 7, 2012 in St. Louis, MO.
The first call came in 2008, just after I started work on the first Autism Works National Conference: “Hi Scott, this is Tracey with Autism Works…” the woman said. “But, wait,” I thought, “That is MY project’s name…” Actually, I don’t have a copyright on the name, so it is legal for others to use it too. Still, it felt likeTracy stole my name.
Since then, I’ve had that same “Somebody stole my name!” feeling twice more as I discovered other groups with the same name. Who these groups are, and what we are each doing to advance autism employment, is a nice sample of some of the varied and vibrant approaches to this important field. Tracey, for instance, turned out to work for Community Gatepath, a Community Rehabilitation Provider (CRP) in California that had been given a grant for a special program serving adults with autism. They called it Autism Works.
A few years earlier, as part of my job helping state vocational rehabilitation agencies in four Midwestern states, I had discovered a profound lack of information about autism in the vocational rehabilitation community, and a similar lack of information about vocational rehab in the autism community. I ended up writing a reference guide on autism employment and starting the Autism Works National Conference.
Six months later, I found another Autism Works, this time in Minnesota. This one is a non-profit group that promotes not only employment, but also life planning and independent living for adults with autism. It was founded by Melissa Kenig-Davis, the parent of a young adult with Asperger’s Syndrome. Parent advocates are an important group in autism employment. They have started some of the most exciting autism employment projects in corporate America, including Randy Lewis at Walgreens and Heather Davis at TIAA-CREF. In Connecticut, parent Jim Lyman started Roses for Autism. In Missouri, parent Kate Duffy teaches job-seeking-skills courses for autism and has co-written a book on employment withTempleGrandin. Heather Davis, Kate Duffy, and Melissa Kenig-Davis were all at our 2011 conference.
And then it happened again – last summer, I found a group called Autism Works UK. Peter MacDonald is the Director of Autism Works UK, which is part of a business movement spearheaded in the U.S. by Aspiritech in Chicago. These businesses hire adults with Asperger’s Syndrome to test computer software. Apparently, when innovative programmers finish their software masterpieces, they often don’t feel like going back to recheck every function and explore every possible input for mistakes. So they hire software testers. For us neurotypicals, software testing can be terribly boring; it requires lots of repetition, documentation, endless lists, etc. But for Aspies, routinized work like this is often appealing and easy. Aspiritech and Autism Works UK don’t market their services by pleading, “Please help these poor young people.” Instead they say, “Our unique workers do a better job than anyone else.” WOW! What an empowering message!
Peter MacDonald and I had a long talk about the challenges and opportunities of this exciting business model. Peter, Aspiritech, and folks from three similar companies will be on a panel at our Autism Works National Conference in March.
So even though each of our groups picked the same name, we are all engaged in different and complementary projects. Discovering these other Autism Works has taught me interesting new things about career options for adults with autism.
Lately I’ve had the feeling that somewhere, someone else is getting ready to choose the Autism Works name for some new kind of employment project. I can hardly wait.