Focus on Employment at ASNC Annual Conference

Gregg Ireland, Larry Kraemer, Dawn Allen, and Van Hatchell

Gregg Ireland, Larry Kraemer, Dawn Allen, and Van Hatchell at the ASNC annual conference.

At ASNC, we believe that meaningful employment is a key component of a fulfilling life, but about four out of five adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are unemployed. Across the US, some enterprising families, and other concerned people, have come up with new and exciting ways to ensure that individuals with autism will enjoy the benefits of employment. One dad is right here in NC: Gregg Ireland and his wife, Lori, founded Extraordinary Ventures in Chapel Hill, a 501c3 enterprise that operates a portfolio of small businesses and employs 40 adults with developmental disabilities.

Mr. Ireland led an interesting and informative panel discussion titled “Employing Adults with Autism: Creating Successful Small-Business Ventures” during Saturday’s concurrent workshops at our annual conference.

Members of the panel were:

  • Larry Kraemer, the Human Resource Manager at the Walgreens distribution center in Anderson, SC, which was designed and built with a plan to fill at least 30 percent of its positions with disabled workers. Eight years later, 270 of its 650 workers have a disability and it has served as a model for almost 20 Walgreens centers around the country as well as other companies. (For a video on the center, click here.)
  • Dawn Allen, CEO of GHA Autism Supports, which supports more than 80 individuals in programs that provide residential, vocational, educational, community, and in-home services. GHA employs adults with autism in Albemarle, NC, on a farm and in a coffee shop that also contains a gift shop for individuals’ hand wares.
  • Van Hatchell, Managing Director of Extraordinary Ventures, which creates its businesses around the skills and interests of its workers, serving the full autism spectrum. Some of Extraordinary Ventures’ current businesses are office solutions, laundry, gifts, bus detailing, and event space rentals.

Here we share some highlights of their conversation:

Tell us about the importance of having a vocation. Why bother?

“We see so many individuals who have been told they can’t work,” Ms. Allen said. Meaningful employment can give them confidence and a feeling of self-worth, she said.

She shared that one individual with ASD had told her that his advice for parents was “Don’t stop your child from growing.” It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from hurt and failure, Ms. Allen said, but individuals with ASD are lifelong learners and deserve a chance.

What are some of the best qualities of these workers?

Workers with ASD have been shown to be safer as they follow rules and procedures more closely, Mr. Kraemer said. Turnover is also substantially less among such workers.

Employees with autism tend to be on time and consistently present for work, Ms. Allen said.

Mr. Hatchell, who shared that he had no background in working with people with disabilities before joining Extraordinary Ventures about three years ago, said he – and often their family members – had been amazed at the growth and progress in what they could accomplish.

What are some of the challenges?

Mr. Kraemer said that managers might find working with those with disabilities challenging as they must “manage in the gray.” Each employee must be managed individually, rather than through general policies and procedures, because of individual needs and skills.

Some employees might have behaviors that mean they cannot work in certain areas or at certain times, said Ms. Allen. For example, employees who speak very loudly might disturb customers in a quiet café, and employees who are sensitive to noise might need to work at night when fewer customers are around.

Mr. Hatchell brought a laugh from the audience when he shared his thoughts: “When we hire an individual, we typically are hiring about five people.” He said that very often, they must deal with family members, a job coach, a case manager, etc., all of them with their own expectations about the job. He also has found that families might not treat the employment as a “real job,” thinking it is fine to schedule long periods away.

What are the most important things to remember when setting up a successful work environment?

Ms. Allen advised learning about the individual’s needs and preferences; if the individual does not like to be outside, GHA does not try to place them at its farm. She also said that a key to success is a good match with the job coach.

Lessons from Extraordinary Ventures

How to create a business:

  1. Just get started, don’t let yourself spend a long time in decisions.
  2. Look at employees’ skills and interests to find a task they can do that will become a business.
  3. Accept that you will experience trial and error, and learn from it.
  4. Choose a business that does not require a big investment. “Fail quickly, cheaply, and often,” Mr. Hatchell said.
  5. Focus on local markets and those that do not already have too much competitors.
  6. Treat it as a real business, not just a vocational program. You must provide a service or product for which there is a need or desire.
  7. Compete on quality, not low price.
  8. Well-supported employees outperform expectations of their family.

How to find the right fit for an employee with ASD:

  1. Keep the sit-down interview short.
  2. Walk the prospective employee through the business, noticing their interest or dislikes.
  3. Let them try tasks.
  4. Look at their skills, challenges, and where they are happy.
  5. Provide a 30-day trial in their new post.

We appreciate all of the panel members sharing their time and expertise with our conference attendees!

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