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.

Here is some really good news. Federal Court Strikes Down Blue Cross of Michigan’s Denial of Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy to Children with Autism.

Finally, I can sleep better at night knowing that the federal court has stepped up to the plate and called a spade a spade: “The court, noting that (Applied Behavioral Analysis) ABA therapy is supported by numerous authorities, and is not supported by Blue Cross’ own medical policy, held that Blue Cross’ denial of insurance coverage for this therapy on the ground that the therapy is experimental was arbitrary and capricious under federal law.”

Insurance companies have for too long held families captive by withholding from their children the assistance of a therapy that has decades of documented and proven results, and has been replicated around the world. It works. Because they have refused to pay for ABA therapy, children who might progress to normal or have improved symptoms are left bereft of the life and abilities that could be their own. They are left without the hope of a normal life. As a result, the cost to care for them once they become adults is astronomical and becomes the taxpayers’ responsibility. The annual cost to society of autism is $137 billion. The Autism Society cites estimates of $3.2 million for the lifetime costs of such care. Caring for an adult with autism in a supported residential setting can cost $50,000 to $100,000 per year.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way, and with 40 years of proven results, ABA offers hope and help to children from all walks of life. This video shows just a few instances of how ABA affected a handful of children in Minnesota. It must be made more widely available. Finally, with the backing of the federal court, we may see strides being made in serving the nearly one in 50 children who are now being diagnosed with autism.

On November 29, Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, stated this in his testimony to the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform,It’s Time for a National Autism Strategy … to address the $137 billion per year cost of autism. The status quo isn’t working. It is time we commit to a comprehensive national strategy for autism.”

However, ignorance of autism is a major obstacle challenging the status quo. It’s not just the government that needs to be involved; it must be a universal endeavor.

I almost cheered when I read “Autism can be an advantage, says researcher,” on NBCnews.com. Dr. Laurent Mottron, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal said, “By seeing autism’s differences as defects, researchers may fail to fully understand the condition.”

Through my son Erik, I have first-hand experience of Mottron’s assertion. Individuals with autism receive and process information differently, but that doesn’t mean they are deficient, incapable or ignorant. It just means they process and respond differently.

The unfortunate result is those with autism face challenges finding jobs, communicating with and being accepted by mainstream society. As Wright says, “The majority of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, a tragic waste of potential.” But, given a safe environment and an opportunity to express their strengths, they can thrive.

A recent New York Times magazine article features Specialisterne, a company based on the tenets that, “given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.”

Specialisterne has appeared in this blog previously. Currently, the company concentrates on technology jobs. However, not everyone with autism excels in technology. Erik’s Ranch & Retreats focuses on what individuals with autism can do—not what they can’t—and builds on those skills. Both models are viable and promote self-sufficiency among a misunderstood population. Recognizing autism as an advantage and thinking outside the status quo is what will move us beyond it.

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.