In early March, the Autism Society of America formally shifted references of Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month ahead of the annual April observance. Before this public declaration, I was already motivated to advocate for acceptance and go beyond the goal of awareness. Without acceptance, we risk perpetuating ableism — the discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or those perceived to be disabled. So, awareness of autism was an OK first step, but it is past time to kick this movement into a higher gear.
The importance of this effort is further magnified by statistics from Integrate Autism Employment Advisors revealing the unemployment rate of college graduates with autism is an astounding 85%.
We need more employers willing to accept that employees with autism bring with them unique gifts and talents, and should be part of a more inclusive work environment. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is among the companies that have figured this out through participation in Autism@Work. This autism-focused hiring initiative has led to a stronger company culture and significant talent acquisitions.
As a special education teacher at Cape May County Special Services School District — one of eight districts comprising the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts — I am aware of the many exceptional prevocational programs in place throughout the state for students with autism.
Such programs help students develop career-readiness skills and train on site with assistance from designated coaches. These job coaches are critical, helping determine what each of the students needs to be successful in their role. I can attest that when the necessary supports are provided, our students truly thrive. They are loyal, hard-working and reliable.
Any manager can take a cue from these job coaches to empower individuals with autism to succeed in the workplace. It often starts with a simple question: What can I do to help you perform your job well? The answer may be as simple as creating a visual schedule of the day’s tasks. Or, it may require some out-of-the-box thinking, like tacking on an extra 40 minutes to the employee’s shift to allow for sensory breaks throughout the day.
The goal of these conversations is to focus on overcoming challenges so that employees with autism can spend their time and energy being successful at what they can do. That is key for building a more inclusive workforce and chipping away at that 85% unemployment rate.
Such conversations also are the foundation for building acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum. My colleagues and I often share success stories from teaching in New Jersey’s county special services school districts. There is consensus that any path to success starts with forming a relationship.
That’s because each student is unique in his or her expression, interests, strengths, challenges and so much more. As educators, we take time to get to know and understand all of these things, and in return, our students trust that we see and hear them for who they are — that we accept them. Once that special bond is created, we take off together, and our progress involves learning from one another.
I am always open to learning. Over the past year, like many people, I have had way too much screen time. But, all of that scrolling, clicking and liking hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. I have taken time to follow new social media accounts — many run by individuals with disabilities — to gain new perspectives into their personal journeys to overcome ableism. I have even learned how to become a more effective disability ally myself.
On Instagram, I have found @disabilityinsight, @theautisticlife, @disabilityreframed and @the.autisticats especially enlightening. So many posts have contributed to my motivation to not only advocate for my students, but to help them advocate for themselves. I’ve even come to realize that some individuals want to be referred to as “autistic” rather than “individual with autism” to take more ownership of their disability and how it makes them unique.
These autistic individuals emphasize that their uniqueness makes them an asset, whether that’s in the workplace, in the classroom, in their friend group or family, or in the community. Only through acceptance will the rest of us fully realize this and benefit from inclusivity.
Rachel Krementz, special education teacher in the Ocean Academy at Cape May County Special Services School District, was recognized as the 2020 Cape May County Teacher of the Year.