Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=215283
Story Retrieval Date: 6/20/2013 1:42:19 AM CST
Marc Lazar strolls throughout a software testing office with his hands nestled in his pockets, checking in with staff members about the progress of their work. He visits with each employee discreetly, quietly asking if they're enjoying the day and discussing any obstacles this day's work entails. His inconspicuous survey of the room ensures that each worker has a moment to raise a question or concern.
Lazar is, in nearly every respect, a regular boss. But he manages one of the most under-utilized demographics in the workforce today, a group whose level of education quite arguably exceeds its pay grade and the work opportunities afforded to it. Nearly every member of this team boasts a four-year degree and yet they have struggled to secure and maintain minimum wage jobs, even in the retail and food service sectors. Every member of Lazar’s team has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
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The number of people diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed in the past 20 years. In March 2012, the Center for Disease Control estimated that one in every 88 U.S. children — and one in every 54 boys in the U.S. — has some version of the spectrum disorder.
When the center started testing for autism in 1992, one in every 150 children in the U.S. was diagnosed. If those statistics are accurate, that makes autism the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world today. Mark Roithmayr, then-president of Autism Speaks, responded to the 2012 statistics by calling autism an epidemic in the U.S. “We are dealing with a national emergency that is in need of a national plan.”
As schools scramble to create educational tracks to deal with the irregular and diverse needs of students with autism, an equally pressing question affecting the well being of those with autism is what happens when the school years conclude. How will the marketplace adjust to match opportunities with the needs of the estimated 500,000 autistic individuals who will enter the workforce in the next 10 years?
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Oran Weitzberg is a bright and affable guy with a college degree and little sense of time elapsing.
When Weitzberg worked as a cashier for a Chicago-area Target store for three years, his autism did not hold him back from most of the responsibilities involved with his job. But his downfall was the magazine rack. Employees at Target who stand during their work shifts receive breaks each hour, and Weitzberg, like many of his co-workers, spent those breaks perusing the store’s magazine offerings. When it was time to return from break, Weitzberg did not come back because Weitzberg’s mind does not process the passing of 20 minutes — not even in the form of a self-imposed imploration to glance down at his watch.
What was really an issue of neurological particularity was construed as a matter of self-discipline and, eventually, insubordination. It led to Oran’s dismissal, according to his father, Moshe. Target representatives declined to comment on former team members but a spokeswoman said the company "believes in the value of a diverse workforce." The Weitzberg family doesn't harbor ill will toward Target specifically; they were thankful for Oran's opportunity there and see his experience as part of the widespread vocational adversity facing people along the spectrum.
In 2007, in response to Oran’s ouster, Moshe Weitzberg and his wife, Brenda, formed Aspiritech, a software testing business designed to employ Oran and people like him — educated and talented people with an autism spectrum disorder who have inordinate trouble with anything from 20-minute breaks to clamorous sounds to flickering lights.
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Moshe Weitzberg notes that a societal hesitance to trust people along the autism spectrum results in them being handed tasks that a "neurotypical" person might deem easier but are actually more challenging for someone with autism. "A lot of people will have problems with motor skills," Moshe says, noting that retail and food industry jobs often task those with autism with bagging or sweeping chores that conflict with small motor difficulties. "It doesn’t fit the physics of their ability. And the things they can do really well . . . nobody believes they can do it."
If the tension facing autistic workers was truly just a matter of tasks that demand small motor skills, the issue could be resolved with the implementation of a few workplace protocols akin to a rule that bosses do not ask certain people to lift more than 40 or 50 pounds in the workplace. But the adversity extends beyond the assignment of responsibilities, Moshe Weitzberg says. The underlying problem is environmental.
"The problem is not the task," he says. "The problem is the anxieties."
From schedules to sounds, the culture inside many workplaces can stifle the effectiveness of autistic workers. In recent years, autism advocates have called for universal designs and neurologically diverse work environments that recognize the sensory sensitivities of many people along the spectrum.
Lazar says that one of the problems people with high-functioning autism face in the workplace is that their adversity is not obvious to the untrained eye. (Many of Aspiritech’s employees were originally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome rather than autism. But the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders formally incorporated Asperger’s into the autism spectrum in December 2012.)
"You often hear Asperger's described as an invisible disability because you don't notice any overt differences until you spend a lot of time with a person or you’re around the person in a stressful situation," Lazar says. "When you're in a stressful environment, you may see behaviors that aren't accepted in a typical workplace."
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Today Oran Weitzberg, like most of his Aspiritech co-workers, enjoys greater success than in his previous job. His inability to process the passing of time has turned into an asset as he wades through what many would consider the pedantic minutiae of software testing. He handles more responsibility than in his old cashier work, and he does it with proficiency that many software employees would be challenged to rival.
Oran doesn’t take a mandatory break every hour these days. For him, that’s more than all right.
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As the Weitzbergs and Lazar strive to create a neurologically diverse work environment, Aspiritech has room to improve but no room to grow.
After moving to a bigger office just two years ago, Aspiritech’s staff huddles together in its space on the second floor of an externally austere office building in Highland Park, three blocks removed from the Chicago suburb’s quaint downtown. If its stream of clients becomes more consistent, Aspiritech will move once again to provide each worker with more space and hire more of the hundreds who wish to work for an autism-embracing employer.
Lazar receives a flurry of inquiries from potential workers who wish to join his team of software testers. "We get calls pretty much every day from families and from people along the spectrum," he says. Meanwhile the list of new clients does not keep up. While Aspiritech retains the overwhelming majority of its clients for ongoing projects, Moshe Weitzberg says the challenge of acquiring more clients is hindered by the stigmatization of autism and the notion that working with Aspiritech would be a form of charity rather than savvy business.
Aspiritech allows workers to use headphones in order to drown out the audible commotion of mouse clicks and scraps of paper shuffling in the office. The fluorescent lighting in the Highland Park office is not considered optimal for people on the autism spectrum, but Aspiritech workers do not seem to mind it. Maybe the most valuable asset Aspiritech brings to neurological diversity is Lazar, whom Moshe and Brenda Weitzberg hired in 2011 to be the organization’s autism specialist. Lazar assists Moshe in the role of staff confidant (workers know they can voice concerns or go to the office’s adjacent safe room when something triggers their anxieties) and coordinates Aspiritech’s grant-funded social component designed to enhance Aspiritech’s workers as people and, consequently, employees.
"We will go on trips to museums," Lazar says. "We’ll go out bowling and go out to meals. We did a six-week long team-building course — we hired some professional facilitators to help run that." Lazar and an assistant are running a social skills group — an hour-long session each week that goes over social dynamics that require extra attention. "We go over different areas that folks have difficulty with, really focusing on the unwritten rules of social interaction, things that everybody seems to know but are never written down. Those are the things that people on the spectrum struggle with and can really hurt them in a workplace environment, knowing topics that are off limits like politics and religion, things like that."
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Creating employment for the influx of workers with autism is a remarkable challenge, so of course there are multiple theories and models regarding the best way to organize advocacy and create opportunities.
Aspiritech’s model is often termed "supported employment." It’s a marketplace environment that is neurologically diverse but mainly employs people on the autism spectrum with the help of a specialist like Lazar. Specialisterne, a Danish company that recently expanded to the U.S., uses a "secured employment" model placing workers with businesses (often tech sector companies) and sending an autism specialist to check in on their progress. Some autism advocates push for workers to attempt self-employment, while other organizations create "customized employment," which is basically self-employment with the administrative oversight of an autism advocate.
"Sometimes people look at us and criticize, saying we’re isolating people, kind of sheltering people in some way. In some ways it’s a valid concern," Lazar says. "But the reality is most people here have struggled and failed — not to their own fault — to make it in the regular workplace."
Lazar is right, but what is the "regular" workplace, anyway? Can what is regular five years from now be different than what has been regular for the past several years? If 500,000 people with autism enter the workforce in the next 10 years as has been estimated, what then? A broader solution could extend beyond small- and mid-level employers to more prominent companies — particularly in the tech sector where a strong number of people with autism have natural interests.
"The Googles, the Apples, the Microsofts — if they could somehow be willing to create programs that would develop talents of folks on the spectrum who could be really valuable to the company . . . there's always going to be a huge need for software testing," Lazar says.
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Moshe Weitzberg cannot meet the needs of the half-million people with autism spectrum disorder who will be unemployed or underemployed if workplaces in the U.S. fail to become more neurologically diverse. But he can chip away at the problem. With the help of someone like Lazar, he can improve the lives of his son and the sons and daughters of others, autistic children who enter adulthood with uncertain futures and momentous questions regarding employment.
And he can exude a paternal gleam when he tells the story of Lazar’s attention and the social component of Aspiritech making demonstrative differences in the life of one former employee.
"He came to our fundraiser event and he spoke in front of everybody, kind of almost impromptu — we didn't even know he was going to talk," Moshe Weitzberg said. "And he talked about how much Aspiritech helped him get the confidence to get another job. He was at a point before where he was demoralized — he kind of gave up on finding work. He got to Aspiritech and found out how valuable he is."
Moshe Weitzberg insists that this is not the archetypal success story at Aspiritech. He is not training people with the focus of sending them to other jobs. Aspiritech is like any other workplace, he says, and would benefit from staff longevity and internal promotion among employees.
But it is clear he is proud.
"He knows he can come back," Moshe Weitzberg says. "We’ll send them out to see if they can survive in the marketplace, but they know they can come back."