Saturday, July 26, 2008

How Adults Cope With Autism In The Workplace

MINNEAPOLIS (CBS) ― Alex Ashkar is a model employee at the Bull Run coffee roasters. And he has autism.

"You know, its one thing to have somebody who works well, but it's also something to have someone whom you like," said Bull Run owner Greg Hoyt.

At Bull Run, Ashkar's autism is a non-issue. He typically works in the packaging department putting stickers on the boxes of coffee and taping them shut.

For Ashkar, finding meaningful work has been a lesson in understanding his limits. His first job at a local retailer didn't work out.

"They had him in a situation where he ended up working in isolation, you know, just straightening the cans, making sure that they're all facing the right way," said Alex's father Sean Ashkar.

For Alex Ashkar, a true people person, it wasn't a good match. So his family turned to Partnership Resources Incorporated, a nonprofit agency helping people with autism and other developmental disabilities find work.

With autism rates on the rise, PRI finds they are helping a lot more people who have the disorder.

"In the old days, you maybe would have out of 10, one or two. And now today, in 2008, we have eight out of 10 are on the autism spectrum, and that presents a whole different set of challenges and opportunities for us," said PRI's Dan Reed. "There's absolutely no reason they can't be extremely successful and happy in the community."

Through PRI, adults with autism or other developmental disabilities are set up with a job coach whose only job is to see that the worker succeeds. The coach devises supports that help supplement their skills, such as the counting board Alex's job coach created to keep track of how many bags of coffee go in a box.

"Alex can meander mentally a little bit, but that's part of where the job coach comes in," Reed said.

Alex and his family have had the advantage of knowing he had autism since he was only 2-years-old, but there are a lot of adults who are just now finding out they're on the spectrum.

"It explained so much. It was a relief," said Rich Cracraft, an adult with autism. "To finally have an answer to why I am the way I am."

Cracraft was diagnosed just last year. He'd suffered through countless jobs before finding success as a historical guide at the Oliver Kelly Farm in Elk River, Minn.

"It's a great mix of physical and mental," he said. "I'm not stupid. I'm a college graduate and everything like that, but my brain works slower than other people and I don't work as quickly as other people."

Cracraft sought out a diagnosis after learning his son was on the autism spectrum. He and his wife recognized a lot of common traits.

"Little things that a normal, a typical person would normally slough off are a little more sensory for him," said Lora Cracraft, Rich's wife.

Looking back, Rich Cracraft now sees symptoms that were always there.

"I can remember having a mantra of look normal, look normal, look normal, as I'm walking down the halls at school," he said.

Rich Cracraft received a diagnosis through the Autism Society of Minnesota.

"You have to be ready to accept the information the that you get," he said.

He also said he wishes there were more services for people like him, who mostly just need help understanding the social aspects of work, someone to help explain "when you walk in and there's a group of people standing there, what's the protocol for saying 'hi'."

"We have an obligation not to simply serve someone on one end of the spectrum or the other. It's an entire spectrum," said Shamus O'Meara, the head of the Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities.

He added that a goal for the State of Minnesota is to implement more vocational services and spread the word about services that already exist. He said assembling a single resource guide for people with developmental disabilities has taken years, but there's finally a result and people with autism helped put it together through a unique digital imaging program conceived by the Governor's Council.

"I think our state is starting down an innovative road to matching technological innovation with the needs of people with disabilities," O'Meara said.

Through the digital imaging program, state and local agencies as well as private businesses are eliminating paper files.

"Technology, if used in the right way, is a great equalizer with people in the disability community," O'Meara said, adding he believes the next step is an autism task force. "I think that our state legislature needs to realize that these are families with disabilities, that there are a lot of us out there, that we're Democratic, Republican and we're not going to go away."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I just found your site while researching classroom strategies for kids with disabilities. I was recently hired as a temporary job coach at a Collaborative - it is very much like the nonprofit profiled here.

Thank you for letting more people know about the issues facing these kids and the best strategies for helping them. I really enjoy your blog.