Over the past 20 years, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has become increasingly common in the United States. In 1998, 1 in 500 children were diagnosed with ASD, but that rate is now 1 in 68 children diagnosed. The CDC estimates that 1% of the population has autism, which means approximately 2-3 million Americans are on the autism spectrum. Over the next decade, over 500,000 teens will reach adulthood, facing hurdles in inclusion in society and employment. We had a chance to speak to Marjorie Madfis, retired IBMer and founder of Yes She Can, on how we can help young adults with autism join the workforce where they can thrive.
Q: You’ve been busy since you retired from IBM! Tell me about the organization you founded, Yes She Can.
A: I joined IBM in 1995 to start their digital marketing program, following 15 years in consumer and direct marketing. When I left IBM in 2013, I knew I wanted to apply my business skills to help a neglected segment of our population: adults with autism. More than 80% percent of adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are not in the workforce – regardless of intellectual ability and academic achievement.
My daughter was diagnosed with ASD when she was 2 years old in 1998. When she reached high school I knew she was not college-bound but she had potential and desire to work. Since schools no longer have vocational programs, what was offered to students with disabilities was significantly limited.
The best way to teach an individual with autism the necessary and transferrable job skills is through immersive learning and leveraging their passion. People with autism tend to have passions for very detailed things (trains are very popular). My daughter’s passions are Disney and American Girl dolls. So after intensive research, I determined that a resale boutique for American Girl dolls would be a great opportunity to teach job skills where trainees would be involved in all aspects of operations including preparing the merchandise for sale, display, marketing, sales, and inventory. While learning and performing all the tasks, the overarching focus would be on problem-solving, executive functioning, workplace social skills and emotional regulation.
In November 2013, I incorporated Yes She Can Inc. as a nonprofit organization in White Plains, NY and opened the Girl AGain boutique in February 2014. We have served over 20 young women who have been in our program from 4-18 months. Some have gone on to part-time jobs, several have enrolled in other training programs, and some are in college continuing their education.
Q: I understand autism covers a broad spectrum of challenges and abilities. Can you explain?
A: Autism is a neurological disorder characterized in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. (See https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism.) While it’s labelled a “spectrum disorder,” in fact there are multiple spectrums in intellect, social abilities, language, and daily living skills.
About 40% of people with autism also have an intellectual disability. About 25% are non-verbal. Many people with autism lack skills that will enable them to live independently – regardless of intellect. Asperger’s syndrome in a subset of ASD, and some people with Asperger’s take pride in their neurological differences.
My observation is that the lack of “theory of mind” is a common trait across the spectrum – that is, the inability to understand that each person has different thoughts, beliefs, experiences and intentions, which interferes with the ability to understand others.
Q: For a high-functioning autistic adult, are there technical jobs they may be well suited for?
A: In general, people with autism are visual learners, concrete thinkers, and detail focused. They like predictable routines, rules, structure and reliance on logic. Recently a number of technology companies have recognized an “autism advantage,” including Specialisterne. They leverage traits of focusing on detail and rules to teach software testing and QA. Microsoft also committed to hiring individuals with autism.
I recently met José Velasco, the executive at SAP who initiated Autism at Work, a comprehensive program to hire 1% of their workforce on the autism spectrum. They are well on their way to their goal of 700 employees who work in core business roles.
In addition to these major IT companies, numerous small tech businesses and non-profits are optimizing for skills such as software testing, marketing analytics, and app development.
Q: As a manager, what would you like me to understand about hiring an autistic employee?
A: First, employees need to self-disclose that they have a disability. It’s important for them to advocate for the accommodations they need, such as a quiet work environment (although some people need to listen to music to help focus.) If working in an office, establish a place to go to decompress. A job coach would be ideal.
People with autism tend to gravitate to technology jobs because they can apply logic, rules and patterns to their work. For others who may have greater challenges, positions in supporting departments may be more appropriate, such as the law library or HR data processing.
In general, clearly written communication with no ambiguity is a must. People with autism have difficulty in “reading between the lines”. Avoid sarcasm, and try to be direct but gentle with critical feedback. Many people with autism have auditory processing challenges, so multiple or overlapping conversations confuse them. Ask the employee directly if she needs any clarification. Explain the “hidden curriculum” – the social rules of the workplace. Neuro-typical people use both logic and intuition to solve problems, but people with autism tend to lack intuition, so they rely solely on logic to problem-solve. Situations where logic fails cause anxiety and frustration.
I highly recommend an organization called ASTEP that helps businesses recruit people with autism and set up accommodations.
Q: Do you see a difference in opportunities between male and females with autism trying to enter the workforce? How does gender bias affect autistic women?
A: With shows like The Big Bang Theory and even the stereotype of a software engineer, society seems to accept “quirky” men who are brilliant. Yet socially awkward women are not tolerated; women are expected to be skilled socially. Women with autism often get fired because of social faux pas that would be tolerated by men. About 25% of people on the spectrum are women, and just like males they range from severely impaired to fully independent. They tend to have greater social interest but lack the skills and intuition to be successful.
I chose to focus my organization on women not only because I have a daughter with ASD, but also because women have been under-served in programs.
Q: From a diversity perspective, how can hiring autistic workers help my team and my end product?
A: People with autism have a different perspective than neuro-typical people because they are highly focused on tasks and less influenced by social conventions (including people-pleasing). They thrive in routines, and excel at repetitive tasks that require attention to detail (and that neuro-typical people may find boring). Software testing is a particularly good match.
SAP has autistic employees working in a range of jobs in their core business including: Software Developer, Information Developer, Business Analyst, IT Technical Support, Document Conversion, IT Project Management, Graphic Designer, Media Specialist, and Data Analyst positions.
Q: What’s next for Yes She Can, and how can folks get involved?
A: Yes She Can provides a job skills development program for young women with autism who need immersive learning. We focus mainly on those in the middle of the spectrum. We don’t teach high tech skills, although we do have our trainees work with spreadsheets for customer and donor contacts, and for inventory management. One of our graduates has web skills, including WordPress.
Our trainees are both high-school graduates and college students; some will be able to hold down a full time job while most will do best at part time jobs. Our goal is to help them reach their potential and to have a fulfilling and meaningful life.
We would like to expand our program. Right now we are an all-volunteer organization because we don’t have sufficient funding to compensate our professionals. I am the president and the executive director, store manager, marketing manager, grant writer and job coach. I have volunteer job coaches but we need more. The revenue from the store sales covers overhead.
I run fundraising campaigns such as Giving Tuesday and year-end appeals, but we welcome donations year round. One of my IBM colleagues added our organization to the employee charitable giving program list of non-profits. We welcome donations!
We always need more gently used American Girl dolls and all their accessories and books. Our American Girl doll merchandise comes through donations. (Send us your dolls!)
Work on our tech application:
We received a grant from Eileen Fisher to prototype a digital tool that will help businesses provide more structure to employees with autism. I have a business analyst helping define requirements. After we test with a few employers we will need additional funding to build it for deployment. If anyone has technical skills and would like to help develop this interactive tool, please contact Marjorie.
To learn more about autism at work:
- Yes She Can Inc.
- Roses for Autism
- Spectrum Designs
- Marjorie’s Blog: Autism Employment Entrepreneurs conference Part 1
- Marjorie’s Blog: Autism Employment Entrepreneurs conference Part 2
- Where to find an untapped tech workforce? Ask Temple Grandin
- Autism Speaks Employers Guide
- The importance of self-advocacy
- Eileen Fisher grants
- Neuro-diversity in the High Tech Workforce
- These major tech companies are making autism hiring a priority
- Path Finders for Autism
- ASTEP asperger-employment.org
- The Spectrum Careers