When it’s seen as a disability, autism is being done a serious disservice. Yes, individuals with autism have different social and communication methods. But, those distinctions make them more aware of details that other people can miss or pass over.

An article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the value to employers in hiring individuals with autism, and we applaud this initiative for several reasons. First, despite graduating from high school, and in many instances college, about 85 percent of these adults with autism are still unemployed. Second, given the most recent announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, we can only expect the increase in unemployed adults with autism to explode unless the rich abilities of these individuals are recognized.

This is a topic that I have discussed before in this blog, and it is heartening to see more changes beginning to take shape. It has always been clear to me that we should be more attuned to what individuals with autism can do rather than what they cannot. Working with their abilities is good for adults with autism, but it is also good for business and society in general.

Genuine Genius shows video from individuals who are skilled and talented and have passions that could translate into creative and functional career paths. But finding outlets for their genius is still daunting.

As we bask in the glow of the April grand openings of Erik’s Retreat in Minnesota and Erik’s Ranch in Montana, we know that living and working possibilities for adults with autism can and will become the norm. Because there are those who can see beyond the word autism to the individual, others will begin to see the potential.

Two significant news items about autism came out this week: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism—a 30 percent increase in two years—and findings indicate autism begins before birth.

In a CBS news report regarding the increase in diagnoses, Liz Feld, president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said in a statement, “Behind each of these numbers is a person living with autism. Autism is a pressing public health crisis that must be prioritized at the national level.”

Although early intervention is called upon to help rewire the child brain, what happens to those who are fast reaching adulthood?

Michael Rosen, a spokesperson for Autism Speaks, pointed out the gravity of that question:

“We went from one in 110 to one in 88 and now one in 68, and these kids are getting older,” he said. “You don’t die from autism. You live a long life. So every year 50,000 of these kids reach 18 and lose their services. They need places to live, employment.”

“These are people,” Rosen added, “not numbers.”

The innovative model of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats seeks to provide a place to live, coupled with employment at Erik’s Retreat in Minnesota and Erik’s Ranch in Montana. Funding is what stands in the way. Join us as the grand openings April 11 in Minnesota and April 25 in Montana to learn how to help make a difference for this underserved population

A recent study has affirmed my conviction that if adults with autism have meaningful work, symptoms of autism are reduced and their ability to navigate day-to-day experiences are improved.

The article that discussed the findings notes that, “Researchers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined 153 adults with autism and found that greater vocational independence and engagement led to improvements in core features of autism, other problem behaviors and ability to take care of oneself.”

The information contained in this article verifies what we at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats have seen firsthand in numerous ways. One example is Erik’s Minnesota Adventures, which we launched in 2012. We hired adults with autism to lead educational, entertaining and unique tours throughout the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro. The tours are based on the interests and abilities of the adults with autism. In the past year and a half, we have watched each tour guide gain confidence, independence and social and communication skills as they have grown into their jobs. The transformation has been thrilling to watch.

The Vanderbilt study also notes that, “Underemployment is a common phenomenon among adults with autism, the authors noted, with around 50 percent of adults with autism primarily spending their days with little community contact and in segregated work or activity settings.”

Having said that, I also want to point to a blog I found on the Autism Speaks website about small business and adults with autism. This, too, confirms my belief that cottage industry will pave the way to meaningful jobs for adults with autism. Small businesses are more uniquely positioned to hire and work with adults with autism, in large part because there may be more flexibility, or the ability to tailor the work to the individual.

As we continue to develop Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, creating opportunities for individuals with autism, we work to develop jobs that challenge and reward them. We applaud all who have taken to heart the need to employ skilled and talented adults with autism.

Cottage industry may be the front-runner to successfully integrate individuals with autism and the broader community. The symbiosis of small business and adults with autism may be the missing link that will begin to lead the way for greater accomplishment in employment training and acceptance of different abilities. It’s a process we are honored to be part of.

It’s no secret that once children with autism graduate from high school—50,000-plus individuals annually—they are less likely than their peers to find jobs. But more troubling is that peers with other disabilities—low IQs, learning disabilities and difficulty speaking and communicating—fare much better. Not only do they more often find jobs, they receive more pay, according to studies cited in a Health Day article.

Another study featured in the same article goes hand-in-hand with jobs. When it comes to living arrangements, “researchers found that only 17 percent of young adults with autism, who were between 21 and 25 years old, had ever lived on their own.” It does stand to reason, however, that without a job, adults with autism are without the financial means to live on their own.

The saddest thing about the results of these studies is that these situations do not need to prevail. The problem, in part, is that there are not enough programs available to help these young adults channel their many skills into acquiring meaningful jobs. But the good news is that some companies and parents are taking matters into their own hands. I’ve mentioned Specialisterne before in this blog. It’s the Danish IT company that only hires individuals with autism. An article in the San Jose Mercury News revealed that Semperical in San Jose, also, will exclusively train and employ individuals with autism as software testers.

But, again, we’re looking at jobs in information technology. Adults with autism have diverse skills. That’s where parents have stepped up. As the link to this article shows, parents realized they needed to create jobs for their children with autism. They are finding ways to help their children break away from the dismal results of these studies. The parents are creating jobs that play to their children’s strengths. These are the grass roots efforts that will make the difference.

Much the same as the parents in the article above, I have lamented that young adults with autism are passed over for jobs they are infinitely skilled to do because of communication and social difficulties. Like these parents, I was frustrated and decided to take the situation into my own hands. That was when I created Erik’s Ranch & Retreats and subsequently Erik’s Minnesota Adventures. But, I’m only one person and I don’t have all the answers. So many young people need our help, and in a concerted effort we can raise our voices and lend our efforts to accommodating the skills and abilities of these young adults. The learning curve for changing the way society views individuals with autism, the perspective of what is normal and how businesses incorporate workers with different abilities is a huge undertaking, but it’s a change that must be made.

It takes groups of like-minded and interested individuals to collaborate, plan and educate the entire country, while cottage industries may be the interim solution for adults with autism to find opportunities to lead lives of purpose and possibility. How to make the change is a conversation that must occur among all of us.

I want to introduce you to Stephen Shore, PhD, speaker, author and consultant whose expertise is working with people with autism.  Shore will speak at the Autism Speaks National Conference for Families and Professionals July 26.

Shore, diagnosed with autism at a young age and nonverbal until age 4, beat a lot of odds because his parents didn’t agree with the doctors that the only option was to institutionalize their child. Today, he is a professor at Adelphia University where his research focuses on matching best-practices to the needs of people with autism.

Shore will discuss his perspective on working with people with autism, and I was particularly drawn to this comment, largely because it is the foundation for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats.

He said, “Autism is a study of extremes, and if we can focus on the strengths and interests of individuals rather than weaknesses, a good employment fit is possible. All of us are more successful when working in an area related to our interests and this is especially true for people on the spectrum.”

Now, I’d like to introduce you to TJ, one of Erik’s Minnesota Adventures tour guides. For those who don’t know, we help adults with autism develop tours based on their skills, interests and expertise. The tours are complimentary, and we’ve been in business for more than a year. Our tour guides have led more than 160 tours with more than 630 volunteer guests. Guests couldn’t be more pleased with the entertaining and educational tours led by these remarkable individuals. TJ is a tour guide whose interests are varied, but we managed to narrow his tours down to art and architecture. For now.

His architecture tour includes the historic James J. Hill House in Minneapolis where he works alongside employees there to present its architectural background and history. So impressive is his knowledge of the history, architecture and background that he was offered the opportunity to apply for a job as a tour guide at the James J. Hill House. Needless to say, TJ was thrilled.

You know, we all shine when the light is cast on our abilities, and that’s the premise behind our program. Helping TJ develop tours that shine a light on his brilliance gave him an opportunity he wouldn’t have otherwise had. We all can excel when we are seen as a whole person. Seeing only autism is so limiting. So, I like to think we’re giving our tour guests the opportunity to see our guides as whole people. The rest comes naturally.

Traditionally, June is a time for graduation. A time for endings, and a time for beginnings. Young adults leaving high school look to the future with a mixture of eagerness and apprehension. This is true for any high school graduate, but particularly for graduates who live with autism. I ran across this blog on the Autism Speaks website. It offers suggestions, assistance and tips to assist parents of youth with autism to help their children make the transition.

As the blog notes, over the next 10 years, more than a half million children with autism will enter adulthood.

I know I’ve said this before, and maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but NOW is the time to act. To be fair, there are pockets of groups and individuals who understand this. I’ve recently learned of the Madison House Autism Foundation, whose goal is to develop a national conversation around and strategic solutions to the lifespan challenges faced by adults with autism and their families. There are others, but it needs to be a universal cause.

Despite the years of working to advocate for our own children, it’s become even more urgent to advocate for all children and adults on the autism spectrum. Yes, groups are doing that, and I’d love to tell you all the work is done and we can just reap the benefits of that work. However, that’s not the case.

At Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, we have found that with a dawning awareness of the need for continued supports, there’s even more work to do. As advocates for adults with autism, staff at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats look daily for new ways to help society understand that adults with autism have unique and special talents that they need to be able to express. Our tour program, Erik’s Minnesota Adventures is one example of taking the interests and expertise of an adult with autism and turning it into a job that serves that individual and the community at large.

Recently we launched Genuine Genius, videos of individuals with autism doing what they love. We’re soliciting and posting 60-second videos from people around the world to help show the world what we already know; those with autism have talents to share. Follow me on Twitter as I tweet the videos to my followers @KathrynNordberg or visit http://www.mygenuinegenuis.org, watch the videos and then share one of your own. Help society recognize the gifts individuals with autism have.

We, also, are preparing our inaugural Diamonds in the Rough, an art exhibit and sale to benefit adults with autism and Erik’s Ranch & Retreats. This October event will feature art from individuals with autism as well as emerging and established local, national and international artists. Artists with autism will receive compensation for submitting their art and becomes another way for these individuals to demonstrate their value to society and gain compensation for their talents.

I know everyone is busy, but take a moment to visit these sites and see how you can help spread awareness that individuals with autism are skilled and talented and deserve the same opportunities as their peers. This is, after all, a cause that will serve everyone, not just individuals with autism.

I’ve been thinking lately about the misunderstanding that so many in our society have about individuals on the autism spectrum. Although autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is termed a developmental disability, it doesn’t mean people with ASD are incapable or unstable.

I believe personal interaction (meaning getting to know individuals with autism) would dispel a lot of the mystery around ASD, but there hasn’t been a clear reason for people to do so. As a result, when incidents such as the one in Newtown, Conn., occur, assumptions are made—erroneously, more often than not. A case in point was the media suggestion that Adam Lanza was on the autism spectrum, which precipitated the violence. That assumption prompted Kerry Korner to present to the media a more accurate perspective.

Along the same vein, in a conversation with a friend recently, I was surprised at his lack of understanding about autism. This man is intelligent and well-read, but woefully misinformed about the disorder, and especially about the individuals with ASD. In my own way, I presented him with a more accurate perspective. So, let me say unequivocally that only personal interaction will allow us to see a person not merely a disorder.

That is the tenet behind Erik’s Ranch & Retreats and, specifically, Erik’s Minnesota Adventures. Six adults with autism hold positions as experience guides, taking groups on two-to-four-hour educational, entertaining and enjoyable tours. Judging by the response to these tours, I know we are on the right track. The experience guides, experts in certain areas, get to show participants who they are, while increasing their confidence and social skills. Participants generally learn something new, while interacting with a talented individual who happens to have ASD.

So often when groups take a tour, attendees describe their experience as exceptional. Really, if you stop to think about it, getting to know anyone requires a leap of faith and willingness to spend some time. So, don’t let a term like autism stop you from getting to know someone with ASD. You’ll never know what you might have missed if you don’t seize the opportunity.

Everyone knows you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, right? If that is such common knowledge, why does society have so few molds into which people can fit?

 

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m talking specifically about adults with autism, but generally about anyone perceived as having a disability. Take a look at this letter from John Franklin Stephens to a celebrity whose tweet used the word retard to describe the president of the United States. You can read his entire thoughtful rebuttal here, but this is the opening comment:

 

“…you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

 

“I’m a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

 

“I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

 

“Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

 

“Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low-grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.”

 

Franklin’s comments struck a nerve with me. His eloquent depiction of what is endured by those who are perceived as different hits home for many on the autism spectrum. It seems that rarely, people look beyond the exterior. But, what if we looked deeper? What if we could see the diamond in the rough? It’s always there; we just need to look past our prejudices.

 

So many people are discounted and even shunned for their differences. But, like Franklin, they persevere and see life as a gift. Let me give you some examples.

 

Oscar Pistorious, born without fibulas in his legs, fought for and won the right to compete in the 2012 Olympics. Nicknamed the Blade Runner because his lower legs are fitted with metal blades, he came in second in his heat. Initially, his bid for the Olympics was rejected because he doesn’t run like everyone else. Eventually, someone saw beyond the surface and let him run. And run he did.

 

Or this video of a young girl with autism, Jodi DiPiazza, who displays a “learning difference, not a learning disability” as she plays and sings with Katy Perry at “Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs” on Comedy Central. As the video shows, medical professionals gave her parents little hope. But, they were wrong.

 

It was the same story for my son Erik. Medical professionals said horseback riding and other sports such as skiing could be dangerous. But we didn’t give up. It took two years to get him to hold the tow rope and now he skis. It takes him a long time to learn, but he can learn.

 

In these examples, someone had the vision to see beyond the surface to what’s inside. When that happens, people can soar. Sometimes it may take a little more effort to pay attention, give someone free rein and follow his or her lead. But when we allow ourselves to change our perception and give someone a chance, magic happens.

 

An article in the May issue of the online business magazine Business Insider bluntly stated, “If You Care about Innovation, Hire People Who Think Differently.”

The article heralded the value of hiring employees who are on the autism spectrum. Tara Roehl, a speech pathologist specializing in autism, succinctly nailed the reason. “They can see your product or software differently. They can figure out how something works, break down the product, find the problems and rebuild it—and they can do all that in their heads.”

I wondered how many companies were following that advice, so, I Googled companies that hire employees with autism. I found several that offer menial jobs—Walgreens, Home Depot and others. I also found companies that hire strictly employees with autism, the Danish Specialisterne and Illinois Aspiritech software companies, stood out. There’s even an agency that helps individuals with Asperger’s find jobs. All of this energy directed toward helping this population find jobs is great. But, it’s only a start.

As Patricia Wright, Ph.D., national director of autism services for Easter Seals says, “There are many adults [with autism] out there looking for and trying to secure employment, but despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re not quite there yet in terms of hiring.” Not all adults with autism have skills in IT or technology. Many are musicians, artists, historians and specialists in various fields.

With current autism diagnosis estimates of one in 88 births, adults with autism will comprise a huge part of the workforce fairly soon. It’s urgent that businesses start to rethink their hiring procedures and job descriptions. Some of the more progressive companies have already learned that the abilities and knowledge of these individuals have not only given them competent and effective employees, it has improved their bottom line. But too few companies are preparing for the onslaught of workers with different abilities, preferring to retain more restrictive hiring models.

A more proactive approach could be to take a good, hard look at the skills of adults with autism and then find a place to use their abilities most effectively. Erik’s Minnesota Adventures is our example. I can think of other possibilities that don’t involve technology.

For instance:

  • Think Tanks A large percentage of independent, high-functioning adults have brilliant mental capabilities. Think tanks could use these abilities to address new product development and naming, advertising strategies, creative solutions, uses for new technology, environmental problem solving, etc.
  • Tutors With support and structure, some of these individuals could be fantastic tutors. (Remember the movie, “A Beautiful Mind?” John Nash, the protagonist, met a group of brilliant students who understood the value of his knowledge.)
  • Research experts/knowledge gurus I worked with an extremely intelligent man who was a product manager for a high-tech company. He was fired because he couldn’t handle the organizational/social requirements of that complex job. However, if management had narrowed the job’s scope and made him market knowledge guru, he would have been an excellent and enormous benefit to the company. Corporations, unfortunately, have standard job categories and an entire skilled group is left out in the cold.

My concluding thought is this. Focus on starting cottage industries businesses as quickly as possible to offer meaningful work to adults with autism in the short term. Simultaneously, we need to develop templates to help corporations begin to think/act differently from the status quo. If businesses receive a realistic path to help hire and train adults with autism and teach existing workers to accommodate their differences, the paradigm can shift. As a result, companies that care about innovation will already have in place differently thinking individuals who can take companies to the next level.

We developed the model for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats to make sure that adults with autism have choices; just as you and I have choices. You could argue that there are a lot of people in jobs they dislike or that don’t challenge their intellect or stimulate them. But, I’m talking about choice. If you or I decide not to go to college or train for work that suits us, it’s most often a choice. If we find ourselves in jobs that stymy our intellect or creativity, we can choose to do something different. Not so for most individuals with autism.

These individuals possess exceptional capabilities, but people tend to see the disorder not their talent. By not looking for talent, employers often overlook these individuals and they have no outlet for their skills and abilities. It’s time to look beyond a disorder and see the whole person. It’s time to stop perpetuating cookie-cutter fixes and busy work. Programs abound that give these individuals menial tasks, but that’s not the answer.

If I had never put Erik on a horse he would not have developed a passion for these majestic animals. From that love, he has learned to groom and feed horses, giving demonstrations and trail rides. Because Erik’s verbal skills are limited, he couldn’t tell me how much horses mean to him. Recently, however, he found a way. In June, he participated in the Special Olympics Track & Field competition. He won two gold medals in races, and a silver medal in the standing long jump. Even with these achievements, he seemed less than enthused until we returned home. Wearing the medals, he walked over to his riding bag, took it off the hook and said “Horses.” Okay. I got it. We don’t need to look any further for his career path. His avocation has become his lifetime occupation.

Jimmy Reagan is another success story. Because a tutor handed him a pastel when he was 17 and encouraged him to draw, Jimmy has forged a brilliant career. At first he was blasé about art, but persistence paid off, and his paintings are being nationally and internationally acclaimed.

These success stories came about because someone made the extra effort to find an individual’s strengths, abilities and interests and mold those into a vocation.

That is the focus at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats. When I talk with parents I always ask, “What does your son/daughter like to do?” I encourage parents not to look at what is available for their child, but if given a chance how would the child rather spend his or her time?

These kinds of inquiries initiated Erik’s Minnesota Adventures, a tour company. It is one aspect of our larger, all-encompassing vision of volunteer guest accommodations in Minnesota and Montana that will be run by the adults with autism who live there. The tour company is one way that we can showcase the amazing talents of these individuals.

Here is an example of how our model works. One parent told me that her son raises crickets and grasshoppers. “What can he do with this?” she asked. We hit upon the perfect idea. Combine an entomology exhibit with a trip to the Yellowstone River; a fly-fishing Mecca. He can discuss caddis flies and mayflies and the history and science behind fly fishing. This tour has a stellar future. Guests receive essential information; he shares what he loves and is paid for his expertise. These kinds of opportunities can encompass almost any talent/skill if we just think creatively. It’s unfair not to explore what these individuals can do.

If I may be so trite, this is thinking outside the box in a big way. This model hasn’t been explored before; it’s a paradigm shift that is timely and relevant.

In fact, the University of Minnesota is talking with us to study the value of this model. Yes, we are aware that our efforts must be tailored to accommodate the individuals. Yes, it’s a lot more work; but the outcome will set a precedent that cannot be denied.

We are on the verge of changing the way people view individuals with autism and what they can contribute to society. Join us.