COLUMN: Autism coming out of the shadows

Many people, when they hear or read about autism, recall the movie Rain Man in which Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic savant, a condition in which someone with significant mental disabilities demonstrates certain abilities far in excess of average and generally related to memory.

In fact, only one in 10 autistic people has any savant abilities, let alone the prodigious skills of Hoffman’s movie character. The term “spectrum,” as it describes the range of autism disorders, reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.

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But now, for all the right reasons, autism is in the news.

Large multinationals such as SAP (Systems, Applications and Products), a European multinational software corporation, are actively recruiting high-functioning autistic people with sought-after software skills.

“They have extreme attention to detail, they are outstanding in terms of memorizing things, also they are logical thinkers,” said Baerbel Ostertag, head of human resources for SAP Canada.

CIBC’s information-security department in Toronto specifically seeks autistic workers for their knack for detecting hard-to-spot breaches in the bank’s online network. CIBC intends to hire more people with autism as part of its broader strategy to hire 500 new team members with disabilities across Canada this year.

Besides CIBC, TD Bank and Shoppers Drug Mart, Ford Canada plans to hire as many as 24 more people on the autism spectrum this year.

“People with autism provide a unique set of skills the way they think, the way they work,” says Meeta Huggins, director of diversity at Ford.

Recognizing that autism, often manifested by social-communication disorder, makes traditional interviewing methods painfully awkward, Microsoft has created the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program.

The program is unique in that it allows candidates with autism to demonstrate their intellectual abilities in non-verbal ways. Microsoft has succeeded in hiring software, service, building and lab engineers, as well as data analysts and scientists, through the program.

The Microsoft program also trains non-autistic employees in the attitudes and skills that ease relationships with autistic employees, whose poor or unusual communications skills can create the wrong impression. Microsoft also provides mentors for new ASD employees.

Autistic spectrum disorder occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. ASD is almost five times more common among boys than among girls.

There are an estimated 40,000 adults with autism in B.C. — many without a diagnosis — and statistics suggest less than 25 per cent have steady work, said Deborah Pugh of Burnaby-based Autism Community Training.

Unfortunately, there are those who still see such hiring as a trendy form of tokenism, but they are, according to employers such as Vancouver IT specialist Carol Simpson, ill-informed.

Simpson, who has two sons on the spectrum, employs 10 people with autism. All of them are skilled software testers, data technicians and analysts.

Simpson points out that employees of her company, Focus, are in high demand and are sometimes contracted out for their IT abilities. The problem in the past with finding jobs has been because of the negative impression created by people with autism’s typical difficulty communicating verbally and forming relationships.

Of all the disabilities we humans experience, autism is probably at the top of the list of those most misrepresented and least understood.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, emotional development, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.

In B.C., families can access, through the Ministry of Children and Families, up to $22,000 per year per child under the age of six to help pay for eligible autism intervention services and therapies.

Parents are required to select professional service providers from the Registry of Autism Service Providers.

There is also funding available for children aged six to 18, and families can receive up to $6,000 per year per child to help pay for eligible out-of-school autism intervention services and therapies.

School districts also receive $18,850 in additional funding to enhance intervention and services for students identified with autism to provide them with in-school interventions and services. That funding is not “Velcroed” to individuals.

If any further proof is required that understanding the needs of those affected by autism is now mainstream, Cineplex Entertainment, in 2015, announced plans to offer a schedule of sensory-friendly screenings with 2D projection, increased auditorium lighting, lower volume and smaller crowds — at select theatres across Canada.

In addition to showing films in 2D, with increased house lighting and lower speaker volumes, theatres will provide a nearby calm zone for families who want a break from the screening. Families will also be able to bring outside food into auditoriums to accommodate dietary restrictions.
In Canada, autism no longer lives in the shadows.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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