Friday, February 17, 2012

Autism Works: A Bottle of Sunshine

Scott Standifer
Autism Works National Conference

We are in the dregs of winter where I live, and I’ve got the blahs. Everything is cold and grey, the branches are bare, the patches of snow are dirty, and spring seems like it will never get here. Our family’s latest antidote has been listening to a song on one of my son’s old toddler CDs--Bottle of Sunshine by Milkshake. It is a peppy song about a child who finds ways to be unstoppably proactive and creative to entertain herself on days when there is “nothing to do.” (Of course, you can’t really put sunshine in a bottle--that is a metaphor for something fun or cheerful that helps you feel good.)

That’s a good metaphor for our upcoming Autism Works National Conference -- an antidote for the blahs.

There are a lot of people discouraged over the prospects for autism employment right now, and with good reason. Most of the state vocational rehabilitation (voc rehab) offices--which are supposed to help people with disabilities find jobs--don’t seem to understand autism very well. The parent advocates and special ed folks who are trying to make their own solutions are often struggling to understand job development and workplace needs. The large autism advocacy groups haven’t been doing much. Employers don’t seem to understand the potential of adults on the spectrum. Autism employment rates are abysmal. National experts spout gloom about the future implications.

Compared to that, Autism Works is a big bottle of sunshine.

Our opening keynote speaker is Deb Russell, Manager of Outreach and Employee Services for Walgreens and president of the U.S. Business Leadership Network. She will talk about how Walgreens expects to roll out its innovative autism employment program to ALL Walgreens retails stores nationwide. Andy Traub of AMC Theatres will present later that day, talking about how AMC Theatres is doing the same thing with all of their local theatres. Both presenters say lots of other corporations are visiting them to learn about implementing such programs themselves.
Nationally-known autism consultant James Emmett will present on exciting developments in corporate diversity initiatives and autism. The federal government is pressuring businesses to hire more people with disabilities, and corporations are starting to notice the opportunities offered by the autism community. Big plans are afoot, and James is in the middle of them.

Our second-day keynote speaker is self-advocate and author Dr. Stephen Shore, who will talk about lessons we can learn from the employment successes of prominent people on the spectrum. Brian King, another autism self-advocate and a licensed Clinical Social Worker, will present on social networking skills in the workplace. Ari Ne’eman, who is a noted autism political activist and founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), will present on overcoming barriers of social architecture. ASAN, is one of the first self-advocacy groups to begin addressing autism employment directly. In September, 2011, ASAN announced a collaboration with mortgage investment company Freddie Mac to provide several internships for adults on the spectrum in the Washington, D.C. area.

Autism employment specialist Katina Demetriou will discuss POW&R -- the innovative, productive collaboration between Delaware Voc Rehab and Autism Delaware on transition services for autism. That program was identified in the fall of 2010 as one of the exemplary autism employment service providers in the country.

Missouri Voc Rehab Autism Coordinator Karla Bunch will describe her agency's emerging new model for services to clients with autism. This model is based on input from a regional stakeholders working group and is the first of its kind in the country. Karla's team is also working in conjunction with local disability employment service providers on creating new, autism-friendly assessment and employment service models. We expect to see big contingents attending from other interested voc rehab agencies, such as those of Minnesota and Oklahoma.

There are also exciting things on the IT front. You may have heard about Aspiritech, the Chicago company that is hiring folks with Asperger’s to do software testing. Aspiritech was inspired by a Danish company called Specialisterne, which has also inspired a few other groups, including Passwerk in Belgium and Autism Works UK. We will have them all on a “vitual panel” via Skype. We will move the conversation beyond “Isn’t this cool?” to “What lessons are emerging? What works and doesn’t work?”

Disability self-advocate Kathy Moeller will be demoing her “cognitive prosthetic” software My Bionic Brain™ . This new iPad application is tailored for people with "cognitive inconveniences" (as Kathy calls them) like autism, including strategies for dividing and alternating attention, remaining oriented in time and space, cognitive flexibility, communication, emotional control and executive function. It is an extension of the successful BrainBook®--a print-based tool that Kathy developed and marketed after she acquired a significant Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) following a car accident in 1990. (Kathy and I recently compared notes on support needs for adult with TBI and with autism, and we were amazed at the similarities.)

Other session topics include:
  • The Emerging Autism Toolkit in the Post-Secondary Ed World (a review of the strategies colleges and universities are using to support the autism community)
  • The Methodological Toolbox for Workplace Supports
  • How to Do Social Coaching
  • Customized Self-Employment for People with Autism
The folks from TIAA-CREF's innovative Fruits of Employment project will be back this year to participate in our Panel of Employers session, joining staff from Roses for Autism (some of their great bouquets will be on display!), Walgreens, and AMC Theatres to talk about the business implications of autism employment. We will also have a Panel of Working Youth to offer insights from the worker side of the employment equation.

You can more read about all the sessions in the (updated to fix link) Autism Works National Conference agenda.

As I think about all of this, it is still grey and gloomy outside my office window. Last year at about this time I remember the weather giving me this same dragging feeling.

Then I went to the Autism Works conference. It was so energizing! People were there from 25 states, including staff from multiple voc rehab and state DD agencies, parents advocates, self-advocates, academics, and business people. Everywhere you turned, people were sharing ideas and stories, and proposing collaborations. There was no question about whether people with autism could or should work--it was just a matter of “rolling up our sleeves” and figuring out how to make it happen. Everyone was ready to pitch in and help.

It was like a big bottle of sunshine.


The Autism Works National Conference will be held March 6 & 7, 2012, in St. Louis Missouri. Details are available on the conference Facebook page or at You can register for the conference here.