Powering Productivity: Enabling Employment for People With ASD Through Tech

Why aren’t people with autism getting to work? Why aren’t employers tapping into such a dedicated, vast, and talented talent pool?

Powering Productivity: Enabling Employment for People With ASD Through Tech

These questions run through the heads of individuals, their parents, and those tasked with supporting and setting them up for success. So, what’s missing?

In my experience, the answer is not much. As the Director of Workforce Development for Nicholas Center at Spectrum Designs Foundation since 2015, I’ve been working out the answers to that big question.

Despite all the massive strides we’ve made towards inclusion for neurodiverse individuals, the unemployment rate for people affected by autism, and related conditions, remains staggering.

Presumably, it’s likely your firmly held belief that all people have something positive and productive to contribute to society. So what’s stopping the vast majority of the 1 in 59 of us from getting to work?

What if I told you that you or your loved one was one roll of bright duct tape away from an equally bright future? Spectrum Designs is an apparel printing company, driven by their mission of employing individuals with Autism. Screen printing, embroidery, heat transfers, order fulfillment, graphic design – you name it and we’ve figured out a way along with those we serve, to get Autism to work—and we literally started from the ground up.

Bright Duct Tape, Bright Future

work station

“Stay in your workstation, dude.” I’d say it constantly. As we’d work on short orders for Google, Facebook, or New York’s Metro-North Railroad System. But what’s a workstation? The day before we may have been folding and bagging items for retail four feet away, when I also told the employee he needed to stay in his workstation.

Sometimes taking five minutes to spell it out is all it takes. Taping out color-coded workstations throughout our 7,000 sq. ft. shop resulted in a happier, more productive employee, a safer environment and a more successful company.

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We noticed that many of our employees were extremely independent in individual tasks but had difficulty self-managing when it came to entering and beginning work, transitioning between tasks when one was complete, and exiting for break/end of shift when the time came. So what’s missing?

Visual Schedules

Used by about half of students with ASD in the U.S., visual schedules are systems that help individuals understand and manage their days. This kind of support has helped many adolescents exceed both in schools as well as in the home. However, they are dependent on structure provided by the facilitators and those charged with maintaining the environment around them. This kind of structure for adults attempting to enter the workforce is practically non-existent.

In 2016, we came up with a creative way of utilizing Trello—a free mobile app and website to assist individuals and businesses with task management, to do just that. Employees report to large monitors stationed throughout the facility in order to find their task assignments.

The Task Boards are updated throughout the day with color-coded visuals indicating where to go, what to do, and who to see. Upon implementing this system, Spectrum Designs saw a 30% increase in employees’ ability to initiate and transition between work assignments independently.

“I like Trello because it’s very visual. As a visual learner, I learn best when I see things and Trello breaks it down very simply. I’m able to communicate in real-time with other folks with the touch and drag system. It’s not over-stimulating or crowded; each message is in its own compartment. I’m also able to customize it—my personal board background is a blue ocean picture. I love the ocean so it makes me feel comfortable while using it, helping me get the job done enjoyably and efficiently.” – Josh Mirsky, Lead Production Assistant.

Trello is one tool of many it existence that enables people with Autism to be set up for success. “We always say that Trello can be whatever you make it, and I’m so happy to see it being used in such an important way.” – Michael Pryor, Founder of Trello.

Life Sherpa is a cloud-based, life and job skills training and management platform created by Doug Meeker, a dad that was determined to find solutions to help his son meet the lifetime of challenges ahead of him. It helps organizations scale their neurodiversity employment programs.

automatic machine

Whether you’re a training organization, an employer or an independent living facility. It enables and empowers the user to self-manage at work, home, or school, all while having the oversight and support of supervisors, teachers, parents or clinicians.

Beyond tape, signs, and flat screens TV’s, Spectrum Designs has partnered with the New York Institute of Technology in order to create a web-based application in order to enable more functional communication and problem-solving skills at work. A visual, completely customizable program, Xpress Assist is currently under development and is set to launch in Spring of 2020.

Ask yourself what’s missing in your own communities. What will power the productivity of you or your loved one? You may not be a screen-printing company, or a web developer – you may not be a creative type at all. Regardless, get the conversation going, inspire new and innovative ideas. It could be a technology as simple as something in your desk drawer or pocket that could enable neurodiversity at work.

This article was featured in Issue 101 – Balancing The Autism Journey

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson is an educator and innovator with an insatiable desire to see the world continue to evolve to be more inclusive of people labeled 'different.' An advocate supporting neurodivergent people for 10+ years, he brings unique insight into just how valuable yet undervalued, deserving and yet underserved the neurodivergent community is. A neurodiverse individual himself, Dave is the Director of Workforce Development for Nicholas Center, the exclusive partner service agency of Spectrum Designs Foundation, where he helps provide supported job opportunities to people with Autism. His podcast, Sounds Like Autism, celebrates people’s differences and promotes a more inclusive world for all different kinds of minds.