Carrie Chapple is intelligent, articulate and hard-working and she has two undergraduate degrees. She also has Asperger syndrome and has struggled much of her life to find and keep suitable employment.
When Ms. Chapple finally received a diagnosis on the autism spectrum as an adult, some of her struggles began to make sense.
“I don’t read facial expressions. I also don’t always reflect what I’m feeling. Sometimes my facial expressions are not appropriate or sometimes my verbal responses are not appropriate,” says the Victoria resident.
Although Asperger syndrome is a term no longer used medically, Ms. Chapple uses it to describe her condition. It falls under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to Autism Canada, people with ASD often have typical to strong verbal language skills and intellectual ability. They may also have difficulty with social interactions, restricted interests and a desire for sameness, as well as anxiety, hypersensitivities to lights or sound and difficulty with non-verbal conversation skills.
Strengths can include remarkable focus and persistence, aptitude for recognizing patterns and attention to detail.
Ms. Chapple, an ambassador for Autism Canada, has a sociology degree and an honours English degree. She left her social work program because she felt bullied by other students and professors who would not accommodate her needs.
A 67-year-old mother of four adult children, she is retired but works part-time as a custodian in the building where she lives.
“My immediate boss has a son who’s on the spectrum, so he understands,” she says. “I’m in absolutely the most supportive environment I could possibly be. I’ve tried and tried to be a team player but it just doesn’t work for me.”
Employment rates lag significantly for people with ASD
According to the National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System, one in 66 Canadian children and youth aged 5 to 17 have been diagnosed with ASD. It is more frequently identified among males, with one in 42 males diagnosed compared to one in 165 females.
Meanwhile, only 33 per cent of people aged 20 to 64 with ASD reported being employed in the most recent Canadian Survey on Disability, compared to 79 per cent of people without a disability.
Spectrum Works, an annual job fair for the autism community, aims to change that. It was started in 2017 by the Toronto-based non-profit Substance Cares.
“When we started Spectrum Works, we were shocked to find out the unemployment rate in the ASD community,” says Neil Forester, one of the organization’s co-founders. “After high school, there is no path created for them to focus on areas they would excel in.”
There is a general lack of proper training and support for people with autism, Mr. Forester says, and not enough funding to support the 300,000-plus Canadians living with ASD who can work in some capacity. Many employers don’t know what ASD is or how to properly on-board and train candidates for long-term success.
Employers can help change that by learning about ASD and dedicating staff to create a culture within the organization that is supportive and inclusive of co-workers with ASD, Mr. Forester says. They should also have specific training processes for those candidates, he adds. “They will see huge benefits from this.”
More than 1,200 attendees from across Canada took part in Spectrum Works’ virtual event in April (which is Autism Awareness month). Participating employers included Microsoft, Hyundai, Jiffy Lube, CIBC, Ernst & Young (EY), Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), Amazon, IBM and Lowe’s.
Also among the participants at the job fair was Autism CanTech, a new Canada-wide program funded in part through the federal government’s Youth Employment and Skills Strategy. The program aims to help autistic youth aged 18 to 30 enter the digital work force. It includes four months of in-class learning and two months of paid work experience, says Brytani McLeod, an inclusion and accessibility consultant at Autism CanTech (which is based on NorQuest College campus in Edmonton). The curriculum includes technical skills and employability.
“Some of our participants will come to the program with full or partial degrees or even technical knowledge,” she says. “The pieces that are often missing for them are not so much the technical skills but rather the employability skills, the career-building skills, and the support to get their foot in the door with an employer.”
How workplaces can better support neurodivergent employees
The challenges for people with ASD start with job searching and interviewing and continue throughout their career, Ms. McLeod says. For women, the challenge can be just getting properly diagnosed, as the disorder can present differently than in men, she adds.
In addition to digital skills, the Autism CanTech program teaches communication, teamwork, interview skills, resume building and how to advocate for themselves at work, she says. It also offers career coaches and supports like an assistive technology called RoboCoach, developed by Technology North. Those supports continue after participants complete the program, Ms. McLeod explains.
There is also a research aspect of the program which aims to better understand the supports employers need to enhance inclusion and accessibility for people with ASD.
Without assistance, many employers simply don’t have the knowledge or resources to provide proper support, Ms. McLeod says. Employees end up trying to fit into the workplace by masking the disorder.
“Unfortunately, this is not a long-term solution, and often ends in an employee quitting or being fired, without there being shared understanding and support,” she says.
There is some progress, though. Ms. McLeod points to things like EY establishing Neurodiversity Centres of Excellence across Canada and companies such as Deloitte partnering with not-for-profit organization Specialisterne Foundation to provide opportunities for people on the autism spectrum.
Employees with autism can bring very high attention to detail, hyper-focus and deep perception to the job, says Ms. McLeod. And they provide a unique perspective that can lead to innovative discussions.
“The best starting place for employers is to understand that having a brain that is wired differently than what is considered neurotypical is not a flaw or a liability,” says Ms. McLeod.
Carrie Chapple says that the best thing that employers can do is ask ASD employees what they need. “That very seldom occurs,” she says. Ms. Chapple has worked as everything from a go-go dancer to a proofreader in publishing. She has volunteered for housing committees and community groups and has self-published several digital books under the pen name c.e. chapple.
“I’ve met other people on the spectrum and we tend to be pretty creative thinkers in our way,” she says. “[Employers] should be focused more on the end result and not how we get to it.”
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