Sustaining Long-Term Employment for Autistic Adults
Meena and Ashish Mundle have been managing a successful franchise deli for nearly two decades. At Schlotzky’s Deli in Evansville, Indiana, the Mundles depend on their small staff working as a team, especially at the busiest times. At noon, sales people pick up catered lunches, office workers want a quick, healthy lunch, and some customers need a late breakfast of coffee and a to-die-for cinnamon roll.
With food costs on the rise and a sluggish economy, each link in the chain is incredibly important to this small business. At the busiest times, 12-year employee Shannon is a crucial link in the chain. Shannon, who has autism and limited communication, is responsible for weighing meat and preparing units for individual sandwiches or salads.
More than a decade ago, the local Community Job Link (CJL) approached Schlotsky’s about hiring a person with autism. Part of the Evansville ARC family, Community Job Link is an employment service for people with disabilities. It serves more than 150 people annually, and also partners with more than 50 businesses.
Shannon had never worked outside the factory setting of ARC Industries—a division of Evansville ARC—and wanted a community job, remembers Meena Mundle. “Shannon is possibly our most productive employee, and her employment has been a great success for everyone concerned,” she states.
Developing Long-term Employment
Thousands of people like Shannon on the autism spectrum need and want work. As the American work force ages, society will need them even more. So, are there lessons from Shannon’s employment that can be learned and applied for others?
Cathy Pratt is the director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at Indiana University in Bloomington, and an advocate for people on the autism spectrum. “We have to understand that it is not just about preparing the employee but preparing the employer,” she explains. Pratt notes that employment situations are improving, as companies like Walgreens, Marriott and Lowe’s offer opportunities for people with autism. “As a society, we just can’t think of ‘autism’ jobs,” says Pratt. “What skills will we need? And are we building cultures and climates that support our folks?” According to Pratt, the fundamental principles for sustaining successful, long-term employment for autistic adults include early preparation, long-term job coaching, the development of natural supports and coping strategies, and the creation of opportunities for vocational advancement/enhancement.
All parents worry about a child’s future. But for the parent of a child with autism, there are special fears and questions. Where will he live? Will he be able to work? What are his skills? What will happen to my child after I’m gone? Pratt believes that advance preparation is the key to a long-term vocational strategy for people with autism.
“What we in education are figuring out is how to guide families earlier for what individuals will need to prepare for long-term work,” notes Pratt. “Generally, we begin to talk about that transition when an individual is 16 or 17.” But this may not be early enough. Pratt explains that early preparation involves not only thinking about vocations, but individual behaviors that can affect a person in the work force. “Parents may want to start thinking even earlier about the behaviors and skills [their] son or daughter needs to function successfully at age 25. Are we excusing behaviors that will limit their options as adults?” Questions to ponder for a young person with autism include:
- What are his interests?
- How well can she communicate with others?
- Is he easily distracted from a task by noises or other people?
- Can she manage her temper?
- Does he know boundaries?
- How well does she adapt to change?
In partnership with Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation, the Indiana University Center is allied with Project Search, which places high school students in employment situations prior to leaving school. Pratt applaudes the efforts of partner businesses. “Corporations have people who are doing a fabulous job finding real work for people in real settings,” she says, citing the example of an autistic adult working for a large hotel chain. Pratt quotes the employer as saying, “I would like to have a hundred of him. He doesn’t get into social chitchat, he learns tasks easily and takes natural cues [regarding] taking breaks and lunch when scheduled, and he is probably more productive than his peers.” Pratt adds, “It is wonderful to see that corporations understand that hiring folks with autism may bring them a really good employee.”
Work issues for Shannon now are different from when she started at the deli. For Shannon’s first year of employment, her job coach visited weekly and worked closely with Mary Bennett, Shannon’s supervisor. Now employment specialist Barbara Gutiérrez-DeJarnett visits about twice a month. Meena Mundle remembers how important the first year of job coaching was for Shannon. Shannon’s preferences and work styles needed to match the deli’s needs. When Shannon started working, she had limited verbal skills. The job coach worked with the deli staff to better understand her nonverbal cues. Today Shannon is a pro at her job, and the role of her job coach has evolved into more of an advocate.
Teresa Grossi, the director of Indiana University’s Center on Community Living and Careers, describes the job coach as having a vital double role, supporting both the employee and the employer. But Gossi notes that doing the research to create a good job match is essential to long-term success. “The initial functioning level of the employee is probably less important than finding and sustaining a good match,” she says. The employee’s strengths and gifts must be assessed, along with ascertaining the specific needs of the job.
“A job coach becomes an account manager for that employer,” Gossi explains. “The job coach has to understand the language of business and not speak in human service and education jargon with the employer.” Grossi gives an example of an employee who was distracted and stressed with noise in the workplace. The job coach worked with the employer to purchase noise-reducing headphones that solved the problem both for the employer and employee. In another example, Grossi notes that light placement might affect an employee’s sensory challenges and subsequent behaviors. With the teamwork of the employer and the job coach, these issues can be found and resolved.
Natural Supports and Coping Strategies
In addition to on-site accommodations, it is important to consider the specifics of home and community life for adults with autism. About three years after Shannon started at the deli, she moved from a group home into supported community living, sharing an apartment with two other women. Her home environment is relevant to her work situation, as it is with all workers. For example, a change in the apartment such as a new roommate or new support staff member may foster a different mood in Shannon. Does this affect her work performance? Often supervisor Mary Barker is the first to notice, but can consult Guitierrez-DeJarnett to learn if the home environment is affecting Shannon’s work performance.
Guitierrez-DeJarnett also helps Shannon with personal needs, such as choosing appropriate clothing for work. She considers whether Shannon’s clothing continues to fit well, whether her uniform meets company standards, and if her shoes are too worn for work. While the job coaching role is markedly different from when Shannon started at the deli, Gutiérrez-DeJarnett believes it is critical to sustaining employment and to helping Shannon grow at work. All employees change in their jobs as years pass; Shannon is not an exception.
Pratt sees length and type of job coaching as dependent on individual needs. “We figure out that employment supports are suitable for a person with autism in the work setting. Then the person does OK, and we back off the supports and sometimes things fall apart. For some individuals, having a job coach for the short-term is OK. But for many individuals, having a job coach over time for troubleshooting is good,” she notes.
Schlotzky’s franchisee Meena Mundle credits both job coaches and Shannon’s supervisor for helping Shannon maintain long-term employment. “Mary is always willing to take time with Shannon and provide direction,” she says. “She knows when Shannon is sick or down, and she communicates well with her.”
Over the last decade, Shannon has been given more complex tasks, says Meena Mundle. Her communication skills have improved as well. “My business isn’t here to babysit anybody. Shannon is not on my payroll as fluff. She is a valuable employee, and I cannot afford fluff,” states Meena Mundle. Her husband concurs. “When you are in a franchise situation, everything is about consistency,” adds Ashish Mundle, whom Shannon calls “Meena’s husband” and not by his name. (This anecdote has become a joke between Shannon and Ashish Mundle.) “A difference in ounces on our meat servings can [fiscally] kill you or make you,” he says.
The Mundles agree that Shannon’s precision in weighing and packaging meat is critical to their business. When they moved to a new building a decade ago, the Mundles designed a less-exposed work station for Shannon that helps her focus, away from noise and distraction. Ashish Mundle, a former corporate finance manager, states that Shannon’s presence is essential. “When she’s not here, you can see that some things have not been done, and this is a problem.”
Pratt urges caregivers and employers to set high expectations for persons with autism in the work place. “Sometimes we think persons with autism don’t like change so we insist they do the same thing day in and day out. When negative behaviors occur, this may signal boredom for the person who doesn’t communicate well … Routine and consistency are good, but we need to assure we have novelty and challenges so people don’t lose engagement. A work environment is more than doing the task.”
Grossi adds, “We have a high percentage of folks on the spectrum who are very capable of working more hours, and no one can argue the benefits … Career advancement for persons with autism in the work force depends on several variables. Do the support dollars follow the individual? Is the job coach checking with the employer regularly? What is the employee’s level of satisfaction and productivity? Is it time for him to move on or up for career advancement? … We should always be assessing for career enhancement as well as wage enhancement.”
“When we raise our expectations and give people with autism opportunities, the majority of people are able to fulfill these expectations,” Grossi states. “Just because one individual with autism may not be successful, this doesn’t mean others are not going to be successful. This is exactly the same with a typically-developing person. Making an appropriate job match and providing long-term supports is what any individual needs, regardless of ability.”
Benefits of a Productive Employee
Hiring autistic adults can have far-reaching benefits. For persons with autism and related spectrum disabilities, the benefits include a sense of purpose, meaningful work, socialization, and a paycheck. For the employer, hiring a person with autism may mean getting an incredibly productive worker, someone who does the task given and more, and who often motivates colleagues to increase productivity. For society, the benefits are immense. More workers are needed as the work force ages. An inclusive society benefits everyone with more productive workers. People earning money contribute by purchasing consumer goods and paying taxes.
For employers Meena and Ashish Mundle, owning the deli is part of creating their “American Dream.” In addition, their efforts in hiring and supporting Shannon, mean that her dreams of greater independence can become a reality. And having Shannon in the deli means customers can continue to enjoy the sandwiches they’ve been dreaming of. Everyone wins.