As a teenager, John Elder Robison failed English and math classes but taught himself about electric circuits and musical sounds. Instead of pursuing the typical teenage dream of being a singer for a rock band, he became a sound engineer for Pink Floyd’s sound company, Brittania Row Audio, and for the band KISS, for whom he also designed special-effect guitars.
Despite having a gift “that allowed me to make the amplifier sing,” Mr. Robison told an audience at HMEA’s third annual Central Massachusetts Autism Summit, held at the College of the Holy Cross Tuesday, “People would still characterize me as a failure because I couldn’t graduate from school.”
The message of finding paths to success that Mr. Robison brought to the summit highlighted the program’s theme, “Hire and Higher: Leveraging the ‘Autism Advantage’ to Meet the Region’s Workforce Demands.”
Mr. Robison, 59, grew up in a time when autism was not recognized as a spectrum disorder, affecting people who were verbal as well as non-verbal. “We were called lazy, stupid, deviant,” he said.
The representational model of books and abstract learning eluded him and struck him as irrelevant. He dropped out of high school.
Mr. Robison, defying teachers’ expectations, built a career on his own terms that exemplified success.
He became a video game designer at Milton Bradley in Springfield, setting the standard for cartridge games. He’s written widely read books, including “Look Me in the Eye,” “Be Different,” “Switched On,” and “Raising Cubby.” He started his own business, an auto repair complex for high-end European vehicles, called Robison Service in Springfield. And he’s on the faculty at Bay Path University in Massachusetts and is neurodiversity scholar in residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Five years ago Mr. Robison partnered with Northeast Center for Youth and Families to open a licensed special education high school, focusing on work-based learning, at his auto business.
Mr. Robison didn’t learn he was on the autism spectrum until he was well into adulthood. He just knew that he had talents and strengths to offer, but in spite of good intentions he didn’t fit in with other people because he couldn’t read social cues.
After starting his auto repair business, he learned how to build customer relation skills - a necessity to build a business - by reading articles and observing successful dealerships. He taught himself not to do things, such as stand too close or turn away in mid-conversation, that might disturb people.
“Before that, which I learned in the context of autism, I had no idea why things went wrong,” he said.
Mr. Robison called on service providers and others in the autism community to bond together, speak out and “help parents see the gifts in their seemingly disabled child.”
There are 50,000 teenagers with autism who age out of school each year nationwide, and 2.5 million adults on the autism spectrum, according to Leslie Long, vice president of adult services at Autism Speaks, a nationwide resource and advocacy group based in New Jersey.
The unemployment rate among people with autism is approximately 85 percent. Those who are employed are often in jobs that don’t draw on their full capabilities.
Individuals with autism bring enormous creativity, intense focus, hard work even when no one is watching, and passion to their interests, according to Autism Speaks. Advocates call this the “autism advantage.”
The challenge for employment is working around the soft skills, starting with job application and interview processes that can derail a candidate on the spectrum.
Tanya Regli, executive director of the Arc of Philadelphia, spoke about working with the IT firm SAP, which in 2013 launched a global mission to hire 650 people with autism. To date, 150 have been hired.
Danish-based company Specialisterne developed a group project alternative to the one-one-one interview for people with autism, using Lego Mindstorms, called “the hangout,” which SAP uses to bring new employees on board.
“SAP is not doing this as a charity. They’re doing this because of the autism advantage,” Ms. Regli said. “It’s a competitive advantage.”
A first-ever survey on autism employment done by Clark University students and professor Elena Zaretsky, presented at the summit, found that individuals with autism are eager to work and have the ability to acquire new job skills, and employers are willing to hire qualified people. They just need the right opportunities and supports, including transition services, to succeed.
Large technology firms are at the forefront of hiring people with autism, but local small and medium-sized businesses are also looking to fill growing workforce needs.
Timothy Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the single-biggest issue the chamber’s members raise is workforce training and pipeline, regardless of the size of the company. “People with disabilities are the largest untapped workforce,” he said.
He pointed to a U.S. Department of Labor report that found more than half of the accommodations needed to employ people with disabilities cost nothing and had a positive return in reduced turnover rates, more diverse perspectives and cultural reach, and resonating with the millennial generation.