FPG and Partners Hold Public Forum about Employing People with Autism
“Our challenges are what make us awesome.”
-- Michael Betts, HR director for Extraordinary Ventures
April is Autism Awareness Month, and FPG continued to draw attention to issues surrounding autism spectrum disorder by jointly hosting “Exploring Successful Opportunities and Strategies for Employing Individuals with Autism.” With UNC’s TEACCH Autism Program, the Department of Allied Health Sciences, the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, and UNC’s School of Education, FPG welcomed a packed house of community employers, families, and others interested in enhancing employment opportunities for people on the spectrum.
Kara Hume, co-principal investigator of FPG’s Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, said the event helped provide awareness of the advantages of hiring people with autism. “It also offered opportunities to partner with successful employers of people with autism and to begin to create a network,” Hume said.
Mike Chapman, director of the Supported Employment Program at TEACCH, moderated a panel from the local business community, which included Extraordinary Ventures, Persever8, Alpha Graphics, and others who shared stories about bringing people with autism into their workplaces. An employee with autism also joined the panel for a standing-room-only crowd at the Carolina Center for Educational Excellence.
Like many of the panelists, Michael Betts, human resources director for Extraordinary Ventures, stressed key assets that people with autism have to offer.
“EV seeks to employ the range of the spectrum,” said Betts (top photo, right). Extraordinary Ventures operates several businesses that benefit from the skills of people with ASD, and Betts related a story about the repetitive nature of an initial conversation he once had with an employee with autism about washing a window—which then resulted in a world-class window washing.
“You ask somebody with autism to wash a window,” said Betts, “and you won’t even know there’s glass in it afterward.”
Linda Varblow, an autism specialist at TEACCH, co-founded the non-profit Persever8 to train and place people with autism in the information-technology sector. Varblow explained that part of Persever8’s program included explaining the diagnosis of autism to her trainees, as well as how people with autism offer unique attributes that can help them do well in the IT field.
“That’s a message they’ve been very interested in hearing,” Varblow said.
Other panelists also noted the diligence, punctuality, and reliability of employees on the spectrum. One employer highlighted the supervisory responsibilities she handed over to an employee with autism. John (right), an employee with autism who works at a local bike shop, explained that his organizational skills were as good as or better than some of his peers without autism.
Betts added that employing people with autism involves challenges but that these come with the package of distinctive and often beneficial traits that defines ASD and that makes employing people on the spectrum so rewarding. “Our challenges are what make us awesome,” Betts said.
Hume said the success of the forum was indicative of the cross-departmental collaboration possible at UNC on behalf of people with autism. Among public universities, UNC is ranked first in the world on autism research.
More on FPG’s Autism Projects
UNC’s TEACCH Autism Program
UNC’s School of Education
Photos by Kathy Hearsey, TEACCH. FPG grants permission to reproduce this story in whole or in part.