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The reality of finding a job with autism

By Jareen Imam, CNN
updated 4:34 PM EDT, Mon May 6, 2013
Sarah Still has Aspergers and has spent years working a variety of jobs that don't seem to fit her needs.
Sarah Still has Aspergers and has spent years working a variety of jobs that don't seem to fit her needs.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sarah Still is on the autism spectrum and has tried for years to find a job that suits her
  • More organizations are specializing in placing those with autism into jobs
  • Experts explain why it is difficult for those on the spectrum to find jobs on their own
  • Support at work can help those on the spectrum stay in jobs longer

(CNN) -- Smiling is something 30-year-old Sarah Still constantly has to remind herself to do, especially when she is going into a job interview.

Still has Asperger's, a high-functioning form of autism. For the past 10 years, she has experienced the highs and lows of being on the autism spectrum while trying to work in professional settings.

It is not as though Still cannot get a job -- in fact, her resume is full of them, ranging from room attendant at Yellowstone National Park to receptionist at a massage parlor. It's keeping the jobs that has been the issue.

"Some days it is really hard to function ... things like fluorescent lighting can even bring my systems down," she said, meaning the lighting depresses her mood easily.

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Still is not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says as many as one in 50 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

Many of those children will grow up and eventually try to enter the workforce.

Still said she's had a range of job experiences. Her worst, she recalls, was working as a room attendant at Yellowstone National Park, because she had a hard time remembering her tasks. She has memory issues because of her Asperger's, she said, and often loses track of time.

"It was really hard for me to remember how they wanted me to clean the rooms. They were really fast and I had an awful time keeping up," she said. She only stayed at that job for two months.

I have Asperger's; I am just like you

Ann Cameron Williams, chief research and innovations officer with The Arc, a national organization of and for people with intellectual and related developmental disabilities, asks what will happen to those one in 50 children once they enter adulthood.

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"How will these children impact our schools, our offices? It is something that we have to open our eyes to. It is something that we really have to embrace," she said.

"We don't have a choice of turning away -- we have to employ these people."

One of the main challenges The Arc faces is educating employers about the benefits of hiring those on the autism spectrum, according to Williams. She said some employers are hesitant because they are unfamiliar with how such workers will perform on the job.

"When it comes to questions from businesses, it is just communicating to them the facts. Giving someone with autism a chance to work, many employers will discover that those on the spectrum are great at working with numbers, computers and spreadsheets," she explained.

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Besides advocating for those with autism disorders, The Arc and other national organizations have work-training and placement programs. One company that specializes in job placement for those on the spectrum is Nobis Works, a nonprofit organization based out of Georgia.

Becky Ketts, the director of rehabilitation services at Nobis Works, finds jobs for people on the autism spectrum while they go through the organization's training program. These training programs last anywhere from three months to a year, and teach everything from anger management to customer service.

These "soft skills" are essential for success in the workplace, Ketts explains, especially for those with autism disorders.

"Even the thought of interviewing for a job can be overwhelming for someone on the autism spectrum. That is such an intimate setting. That alone can keep people from finding a job," Ketts said.

Still can relate. "I don't tell employers I have Asperger's," she said. She worries that employers will be immediately turned off from hiring her. "But I think when I do interviews I seem a bit strange and people don't hire me."

She also has difficulties "being social," she said. It is those little things that ultimately build stress for her in the workplace.

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Social interaction is a common challenge for those with autism disorders, Ketts said. "We all interact with so many people, co-workers, bosses, it can all be very overwhelming for those on the spectrum," Ketts said.

Still said positive reinforcement was lacking in some of her previous jobs. "I had one boss who I would hear yell at other employees -- that really affected me," she said. "And sometimes, I feel people staring at me and it makes me uncomfortable."

Ketts adds the key to overcoming those overwhelming feelings can be as simple as having a support system. A positive work environment and internal support can help increase retention rates at jobs for those on the spectrum. Nobis Works said it offers external support for individuals on the spectrum and reports an 84% retention rate, where employees stay longer than 90 days at their placement jobs.

"We can set someone up on the autism spectrum at a good job, but things can change. Keeping a job can be the hardest part," Ketts said.

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More employers are becoming aware of the needs of people on the autism spectrum. There also are companies actively seeking to hire people on the spectrum. Aspiritech, a nonprofit Chicago-based company, launched a program to train high-functioning people on the autism spectrum to test software for tech development companies.

Even companies like Walgreens are taking a stand to hire more people on the spectrum. The company's CEO announced in 2012 that it would try to fill 20% of its distribution center jobs with people of different disabilities.

Williams said companies are starting to see not only the business benefits of hiring someone on the spectrum, but also the ethical and public relations benefits. "It is hard to measure it with a dollar, but it is the right thing to do. When you have a company that is willing to hire someone with a disability, it's a positive reflection on that company," she said.

Karen Carlisle, vice president at Nobis Works, said the most important thing for employers to remember when hiring someone on the spectrum is that they are always going to have autism, no matter how much training a placement program provides for them.

"We don't fix people with disabilities, we help people work with those disabilities and we work with managers and employers to help them understand these people," she said.

"There is hope for people on the autism spectrum in terms of finding work."

Still said she wishes employers would be aware that some people on the spectrum tend to be more sensitive. "And it may take us a bit more time to learn how to do something, but once we get it, we are very helpful. Many of us are dedicated to helping others, we just learn and show our dedication differently," she said.

She said she hopes that if and when she does find a job she can start telling her employer about her needs with Asperger's.

Despite not having a job since May 2012, Still said she isn't discouraged. Ideally, she hopes to work with animals in the future and be out in nature. She said she's hopeful because she knows she and others on the autism spectrum have a lot to offer.

"We are very intelligent," she said. "We are very focused if we are doing something we love." And that thought keeps her smiling.

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