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  • Landmark’s Approach Provides Support to Students With Autism

    June 10, 2019 | By NACE Staff

    Special Populations
    An autistic employee works on a laptop.

    TAGS: best practices, diversity and inclusion, students with disabilities, spotlight, career development

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals

    Landmark College is a small liberal arts college in southern Vermont exclusively for students who learn differently, including students with dyslexia, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

    “All students identify as neurodivergent,” explains Jessica Nelson, associate director of career connections at Landmark. “Among them, 33 percent of enrolled students have disclosed an autism diagnosis.”

    Nelson adds that 85 percent of individuals on the autism spectrum with college degrees are unemployed. Staff in the Landmark Career Connections office have seen several key reasons for this.

    In her work developing partner relations with employers, Jan Coplan, Landmark’s director of Career Connections, has encountered several barriers. Some, she notes, are based on uninformed assumptions and others have to do with concerns about the amount of energy and money it will require to accommodate neurodivergent students.

    “Companies often assume that implementing a program to support neurodivergent individuals means a complete overhaul to the structures that currently exist,” she explains.

    “In other cases, they rely on what the media has portrayed about individuals on the spectrum and are unwilling to consider a new approach to hiring, recruiting, and onboarding.”

    Nelson adds that traditional interviewing can be a major barrier for individuals with autism because of the challenges they often have with social communication.

    “During interviews, we tend to gravitate to people that are ‘like us,’ who seem to ‘fit’ the company culture, or who have superior communication skills, even when the role they are being hired for may not involve a lot of outward communication,” Nelson points out.

    “These practices—rather than competency-based interviews—systematically exclude individuals who inherently struggle with communication, but are otherwise perfectly suited for the job at hand.

    Landmark champions a strengths-based model that gives its students the skills and strategies they need to achieve their goals.

    “Our overall approach is based in research,” Coplan says. “The tools and strategies we provide to the students we work with are created with the larger perspective about how they learn and process information differently. Our services are customized and individualized. We give them strategies that are informed from experts in the field of autism and from companies that have Autism at Work programs.”

    She points out that the overall message from Landmark is for students to work from a perspective of the assets they will bring to the workplace versus the deficits they have that may require accommodations.

    “Our office works from a mindset that it is important to see the whole person we serve and empower them to bring their whole self to work,” Coplan adds.  

    There are several abilities that characterize students with ASD that are valuable in the workplace. Individuals with ASD may:

    • Have deep passions and interests. They may be particularly skilled in one area.
    • Be very honest and loyal.
    • Be very detail oriented.
    • Have the ability to engage in repetitive tasks.
    • Be punctual and rarely miss work.
    • Possess strong visual thinking.
    • Be logical.
    • Recognize patterns.

    Still, common strategies employed by many career coaches to aid clients in their career exploration—motivational interviewing and curious questioning, for example—can be ineffective and even frustrating to individuals on the spectrum, Nelson says.

    “They are concrete thinkers and can struggle with the abstraction of open-ended questions, so it can be more effective to ask a series of more ‘closed’ questions to solicit the information you need to assist them on their journey,” she explains.

    “Individuals on the spectrum often need more directive, such as ‘how-to’ strategies used during sessions because of their challenges with understanding social settings and conventions.”

    Interestingly, she says that when addressing the needs of students with autism, career services practitioners may find it beneficial to think about how they are serving international students.

    “Individuals on the spectrum actually have some similar needs,” Nelson says. “Do you explain American workplace customs and culture to international students? Do you provide them with a step by step on how to approach an interview in the United States? Individuals on the spectrum need this too because they do not understand the ‘hidden curriculum’ at workplaces and what is expected of them in this different social setting.”

    An essential step in supporting this effort is to educate and inform employers of the assets and desirable skills neurodivergent individuals bring to a company, and to encourage companies to think more broadly about their hiring practices.

    “A large part of the work I do requires that I attend events all over the country and meet with employers who are pioneers and innovators in the movement of embracing neurodiversity,” Coplan says.

    “I devote a large percentage of my time to building partnerships with companies that value and are actively seeking to hire neurodivergent students. As part of the partnership building, we outline parameters of our partnership to ensure that the goals we have set are met and maintained for the benefit of the company and the students. In addition, our office has created trainings for employers that are interested in hiring our students, but are unsure of how to implement a program.”

    Nelson says the most important advice she can offer to other career services practitioners working with students with autism is to not fear being direct.

    “From a professional and often cultural standpoint, we are taught to be polite, to speak around issues, and to assume others will pick up on hints or innuendo,” she explains.

    “One of the greatest services we can provide to our clients on the autism spectrum is to be direct, and gently correct behaviors that will impede them from finding employment. I dream of a future professional workplace culture where behaviors that fall outside the social norm are just accepted and appreciated if they don’t interfere with work. Until that happens, I feel it’s the practitioner’s responsibility to help clients on the spectrum understand what the expectations are, and how, in their unique ways, they can meet them.”

    For example, Nelson recently had a student who would open Nelson’s office door and walk in without knocking. Nelson explained to him that the proper way to enter someone’s office is to knock and wait to be acknowledged.

    “What a neurotypical person may consider obvious may need to be explained to someone with autism because reading and understanding social situations can sometimes feel like reading a foreign language,” she says. “They may understand bits and pieces, but it doesn’t come naturally. You are helping your client learn this new professional language when you directly address things like deviation from social norms or hygiene issues or appropriate topics of conversation.”   

    Additionally, career services practitioners need be aware of the comorbidity of other learning differences and mental health issues with this population. Nelson notes that it is very common for individuals on the spectrum to also have issues with anxiety.

    “You may also see issues with depression, OCD, ADHD, or bipolar disorder,” she says. “This is why you need to address the client as a whole person, and not be afraid to ask questions about their mental health, making appropriate referrals when needed and understanding how it could impede their future employment.”  

    Overall, it is important to understand that autism is, in fact, a spectrum.

    “The characteristics of autism can present very differently from individual to individual, and you typically don’t see someone that experiences all the characteristics associated with autism,” Nelson says. “Autism advocate Dr. Stephen Shore coined the phrase, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’ I have found that to be very true in the work that I do.”

    Nelson and Coplan report seeing new employer programs to hire neurodivergent students pop up regularly. They are beginning conversations with several Fortune 500 companies that are eager to start programs and source this talent.

    “In this labor market,” Nelson explains, “companies are now looking for previously untapped talent pools and are finding that individuals with autism bring many needed skills to the table. They see the benefits in creating a more neurodivergent friendly workplace to attract and retain this talent.”

    Jessica Nelson and Jan Coplan presented “Autism Goes to Work: Empowering Neurodivergent Individuals in Their Quest for Employment” during the 2019 NACE Conference & Expo.

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