Connecting workers on the autism spectrum with tech jobs

Program aims to tap strengths of those with autistic disorder and Asperger's

April 28, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Data entry is repetitive and hard to do well — that is, quickly and accurately. Shane Foley is great at it.

The 21-year-old Ellicott City man works on two computer screens, eyeing images of handwritten sheets on one and clicking the information into a program on the other. His boss gives him a glowing review. So does the head of the state agency whose contract he's working on.

Really something for a young man whose neurologist told his parents, many years ago, to consider institutionalizing him.

Foley, who has autism, is the first employee of a program for Marylanders with autism-spectrum disorders. The goal: Connect participants with autism and Asperger's syndrome to tech jobs that put strengths — such as logical thinking and a high ability to focus — to good use, whether it's data entry, like Foley's job, or software testing.

"We're very much believers in the abilities of all peoples with disabilities, and like to focus on what people can do," said Catherine Raggio, secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities. "We want businesses to know that Maryland has a whole lot of talented people who they may never have considered for employment before."

She got the ball rolling for the program, dubbed Aspire, but it's not state-run. Instead, it operates as a staffing agency through Glen Burnie-based PDG Inc., a company that specializes in services for people with disabilities. PDG hired Foley in November, trained him and got him started on contract work for the state Department of Juvenile Services.

So far, that's the only contract — the program is in the pilot stage. But Morris Tranen, PDG's CEO, expects to have more contracts and employees this year. He's visiting businesses and pitching the concept.

"There's a lot of interest out there," said Tranen, whose goal for the program once it ramps up is to cover all costs with contract revenue. "People have said, 'Well, come back when you're ready.' … Now it's really a matter of going out and testing the model — will they really make the hires that they said they would?"

Sam Abed, Maryland's secretary of juvenile services, is an enthusiastic supporter of the program, thanks to Foley's near-flawless data entry. (In five months, he's made a single mistake. And that was at the very beginning.)

"We have people who could do it but weren't doing as good a job as this young man is doing," Abed said. "It just really fills the need for us in a great way."

Health officials refer to the "spectrum" of autism because there's great variance in symptoms.

Autistic disorder — so-called classic autism — often causes substantial language delays as well as social and communication challenges. Those with Asperger's typically don't have language problems, and their IQ is normal or above average, but find social situations a never-ending challenge. Picking up on body-language cues, for instance, or making friends can be difficult.

Raggio said she initially planned on a program to help adults with Asperger's get work, but then organizers connected with Foley. His job performance convinced them that they should consider workers with classic autism as well.

"You sit him down with a pile of data, and he just doesn't look up till it's finished," Tranen said.

One in 50 children ages 6 to 17 has an autism-spectrum diagnosis, according to a March analysis by the National Center for Health Statistics. Numbers have risen rapidly in recent years. At least some of the increase is driven by increased awareness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Nearly 10,000 children in the Maryland public school system last fall had an autism diagnosis, up from about 4,100 a decade earlier, according to the state's special-education census.

Health officials say the amount of assistance for this population is inadequate. More than a third of young adults on the autism spectrum are neither working nor in college, a substantially higher percentage than peers with a learning disability or mental retardation, according to a 2012 study partially funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Young adults on the autism spectrum "experience unique challenges in finding work or enrolling in appropriate educational opportunities after leaving high school," the institute said.

That was driven home to Tranen when he recently interviewed a man with Asperger's who has a bachelor's degree in mathematics.

"He has not been able to get a job in six years, but he's got the skills," Tranen said. "So we want to try to work on the wraparound supports to help him become employed. And there are a lot of these folks out there."

Tranen intends to ease the transition to work with training — for employees and, if needed, for co-workers who aren't on the autism spectrum. The goal is for Aspire employees to work onsite at the companies or agencies for which they're contracting.

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