Notes from a 2019 Talk on Autism and Employment

Autism and employment. Maureen Crawford Hentz, vice-president of Human Resources at A.W. Chesterton Company, recently presented “Tapping Into a Rich Talent Pool: Employer Strategies for Reducing the Barriers to Employment for Candidates on the Autism Spectrum.” This event was sponsored by the UMass Lowell Center for Autism Research & Education. The UMass Lowell Center for Autism Research and Education conducts Autism Spectrum Disorder research and educates students and the public concerning issues relevant to the autism community. It also partners with local agencies to help improve the lives of those with autism and their families. This event is part of the Center for Autism Research and Education Expert Speaker Series.

I was able to attend this event, and here are key talking points, recommendations, and “take-aways” from the talk:

Companies want the best employee, and employees want the best company” and “Candidate strategy is candidate strategy.” In other words, all applicants need a strategy to appeal to hiring committees, autistic individuals included. Your strategy should highlight strengths that differentiate you from other applicants.

Consider acknowledging your challenges through disclosure, and then “knock it out of the park.”

Be aware of unconscious bias in interviews, plan for it, and be prepared to disarm it if necessary. For example: if you find eye contact challenging, acknowledge it. Then, communicate that you are glad to be there and are engaged in the discussion. Part of your strategy can be to “name” challenges to demonstrate self-awareness and insight. This technique can work to destabilize bias.

About handshakes: a Stanford University study dispels notions that handshakes must be firm. Rather, effective interview handshakes should have “web to web contact” and parallel thumb placement.

Consider videotaping mock interviews with a stranger, reviewing your practice sessions, and using cues. For example, some people might benefit from using a silent (vibrating) alarm on a smart watch to cue periodic acknowledging head nods.

Ask for accommodations if you need it. Hentz is an advocate for disclosure and requesting reasonable accommodations with the HR Dept prior to an interview. These could be: previewing questions, having a prior day walk through of the setting, or requesting Skype or telephone interviews.

Use the Job Accommodation Network at University of West Virginia for additional tips and resources. https://askjan.org/ Housed at the West Virginia University College of Education and Human Services, the Job Accommodation Network, known as JAN, is the nation’s leading source of free, expert, and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.

Use LinkedIn (and LinkedIn groups by topic) for networking, and be sure that your profile is current.

Consider Searching These Employment Sites:

Lastly, I had a chance to ask a question during a Q & A component, and in response to my inquiry for recommended ways for students to advocate for their needs rather than attempt to change themselves to appear more neurotypical, Ms. Crawford Hentz reiterated the disclosure component being a key part of the overall candidate strategy mentioned in the first talking point above.

Do you have questions or comments regarding the strategies and tips outlined above? What are some of your own job-search challenges that you’d like to see addressed on STS? Let us know in the comments.

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Susan Woods, M. Ed, recently retired as Associate Dean of Student Support Services at Middlesex Community College after 27 years. Susan managed the college’s Disability Support Services, supporting 1000 students with documented disabilities, as well as alternative and grant funded support programs. Susan has regularly provided training and workshops to faculty and staff on creating welcoming and inclusive environments and universal design for instruction. Her work now focuses on professional development and training to high school personnel and families to help support the successful transition to college for students with disabilities. Her professional development website is www.susanbwoods.com.

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