By Astrid Liddel
Since my recent interview with renowned author and speaker Sean Barron, I’ve been increasingly interested in how those of us with autism can build upon and express our unique strengths. So I was intrigued by Uniquely Abled, a foundation headquartered in Valley Village, California, which helps people with autism find their abilities and match them to jobs.
The idea for the Uniquely Abled Project surfaced in 2013 in collaboration with the Exceptional Children’s Foundation. They were looking for a way to define individuals as “uniquely abled” and bring their talent to bear in the job market. To gain more insight about the organization, I interviewed Dr. Ivan Rosenberg, Founder and President of the Uniquely Abled Project for the CBS Blog.
What I found was an empathetic, business-driven approach to maximizing potential and integrating our community—an approach which sees those with autism not as disabled, but uniquely abled. The transcript is below.
Astrid Liddel: Why did you decide to start this company?Dr. Ivan Rosenberg: I have two children on the autism spectrum. Like all parents of kids with a diagnosis, I was concerned about their ability to support themselves after my wife and I were gone. I started looking at the problem, not just of them, but of the larger problem. There are 40 million people who are disabled in the U.S. 1.5 million in the U.S. have been diagnosed with autism. Ninety percent of those with autism are unemployed or underemployed, so it’s a pretty big problem.Most of the underemployed or unemployed are not living great lives. Many of them are not living the life they could have, given their capability. My perception was that despite the best efforts of thousands, millions and billions of dollars, those statistics hadn’t changed in decades. There are accomplishments here and there, and they are certainly making a difference with individuals, but it’s a drop in the bucket. This problem was not going to get solved by charity or government grants. Any charity or government grant is not sustainable. Those were not solutions to a 40 million-person problem. You needed a business solution—a solution that impacted the 40 million.
People with autism have a heightened sense of when something’s not the way it should be, and they’re very focused. What nobody does is ask what jobs in demand could use those abilities.
IR: Everybody who has a diagnosis has a compensating ability, and that ability is better than ‘normal’ people. Statistically, blind people have a heightened sense of touch and hearing. People with autism have a heightened sense of when something’s not the way it should be, and they’re very focused. What nobody does is ask what jobs in demand could use those abilities. A business decision is hiring someone who is able to fill a need. By using the term disabled, we’re making it impossible to hire them as a business decision. If you call someone uniquely abled, their question is what are they uniquely good at. My goal is to shift the societal paradigm. I want to facilitate the creation of opportunities for uniquely abled people.
AL: How have you impacted the autistic community?
IR: Those with high-functioning autism are good at using CNC machines. Airplane parts are made on CNC machines. The problem is that there’s a huge demand for CNC operators. Companies could sell more having an operator on the machine. Because my kids are on the spectrum, I notice the characteristics of people with autism, and it’s like they were made for each other.
People with high-functioning autism are focused, they’re smart, they’re familiar with computers. Many can think in 3D. They work alone, they’re good at sensing when something’s not right, and they can do repetitive work. It impacts their social abilities, but they’re great for being a CNC operator.
We created two academies to date with community colleges. One of the problems [for] people with autism is it’s insufficient to go to a community college because of the lack of social skills. We had to build things around the existing CNC training.
Thirty-seven people have graduated to date. At least 35 have a job. They’re the best; the employers’ reactions are amazing. They have better characteristics than some of their neurotypical peers. We have 16 currently in training and they’ll graduate in December. We expect all of them to be employed. However, this was built to be scalable. Our job is to get these academies up and running, and then they run themselves. We have four or five more planned for 2019.
I can see the people that we’ve contacted are shifting their perspective on “disabled” people. They’re changing their attitude towards people with autism. However, we are [also] currently looking at starting an inspector training program, and you don’t need to be high-functioning for that.
We believe we can have people who are not as high-functioning get good paying in-demand jobs in B&B [manufacturing] companies. There is a population who love those jobs. The problem is that [in many] businesses there’s no such population. Secondly, they don’t realize how many of those jobs they have. Even if they realize that, they wouldn’t know where to get those folks. Autistic kids get retail jobs, and it doesn’t realize their abilities. We have a workshop in which we train job developers how to create opportunities in B&B companies.
AL: How do you help autistic people find their special skill sets?
IR: We’re working on trying to be more clear about that. That’s really a process that is under investigation. First, the diagnosis gives you some indication. There are some typical characteristics of folks with autism. Typical abilities of someone with high functioning autism are repetitive tolerance and detail focus; you can repeat things over and over again and maintain the detail focus. You can focus for long time periods. Often high intelligence and mechanically inclined. They are very able to detect when something isn’t right and focus on things being right. They like working alone. They’re sticklers for following rules, and they generally do what they say they will do. They dislike transitions.
If you’re a company hiring an entry-level worker, the concern is that they’ll give them practical experience and then they’ll leave for another company. People with autism don’t do that. They’re excited about having a job. You want to have someone who loves that they’re doing. What do they really enjoy? You delve into the aspect of that and get out their unique ability. It’s almost natural. For older folks, you can ask if people count on them for an ability. The other part is, do they never get bored doing it? They like what it is and improving on it. That’s how you find someone’s unique abilities.
AL: Does Uniquely Abled serve adults, children or both?
IR: At the present time, for our programs, because they’re vocationally oriented, you have to be 18 or above. Our plan is to reach into the high schools and do two things: Shift the paradigm and be able to start some of the training so that by the time they’re 18, they’re more prepared than they would ordinarily be. The other part we hope will happen is that people and their parents will look at it as uniquely abled rather than disabled.
AL: Any advice for our readers about how to use their special strengths in their daily lives?
IR: I think the biggest thing I would recommend is to shift from looking at people with autism as disabled and start looking at them in terms of having unique abilities. The issues that they have trouble with are often social, and we judge people based on how they are in social circumstances. They have hidden abilities that are great. People see them as damaged goods.
We want to shift to what are their unique abilities and how much they use these abilities that they enjoy to have a career. We want them to see not what jobs will take them, but what jobs fit their unique abilities. It’s no different than being tall. It’s not a disability.
You can help people function better, but to view them as something to be cured is insulting. We want the shift from disabled to uniquely abled for both [people with autism and people without autism].
IR: Sometimes it’s an advantage and sometimes it’s not. My daughter said when she was 12, “Dad, it’s noble to work to prevent autism. It’s insulting to work to cure it.” You can help people function better, but to view them as something to be cured is insulting. We want the shift from disabled to uniquely abled for both [people with autism and people without autism].
Astrid Liddel is a CBS staff member and blogger publishing under a pseudonym.
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