When Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund purchased a massive apple orchard in Washington state as part of its investment portfolio, managers soon discovered that workers often would show up drunk or not show up at all.
“We needed a better workforce, people who really wanted to do the work,” says Heather Davis, senior managing director and head of global private markets for the Fortune 100 financial-services organization headquartered in New York.
Needing reliable workers, the company took an unconventional turn: It decided to focus on hiring employees with autism for its Fruits of Employment program. The move has paid off, Davis says.
“They take a bit longer to train, but once they’re trained, they’re excellent,” Davis says.
Although many organizations have shied from hiring people with autism—often fearing potential workplace problems—a handful of companies have embraced hiring people with the developmental disorder.
“People with disabilities have a lot more potential than people give them credit for,” says Deb Russell, manager of outreach and employment services at Walgreens. The drugstore-chain giant, based in Deerfield, Illinois, was an early adopter of workers with autism.
It’s a very real issue among future workers, as a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found that in 2008, one in 88 children had been diagnosed with autism, Asperger syndrome or a related disorder by the age of 8. That’s up from one in 155 in 2002, though experts aren’t sure whether the jump is due to an increasing incidence of the disorder, increased awareness of it or a combination of the two.
“There’s a growing need for employment for people aging out of the school system,” says Davis, who has a 12-year-old son with autism. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, autistic students generally receive a lot of support in school, but that typically fades once they graduate.
That’s borne out by a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, which found that 35 percent of young adults with autism were not employed or attending college or technical school within six years of graduating from high school.
Davis thought of her own son, who has “enormous power of concentration and fine motor skills”—abilities that would be a perfect fit for someone working in an apple orchard. “I just saw a lot of little puzzle pieces coming together.”
Neither TIAA-CREF nor Walgreens specifically asks potential employees what kind of disability they have, but often the workers will tell their bosses, or their behavior can be an indication. And TIAA-CREF held job fairs in conjunction with organizations that assist disabled people when seeking workers for its Fruits of Employment program.
The company has 10 employees with autism or other disabilities working full time at its 1,000-acre Badger Mountain apple orchard in Kennewick, Washington. The company also owns a 4,300-acre vineyard in Santa Barbara County, California, staffed by 12 full-time employees who are autistic or have other disabilities.
Because traditional job interviews can be a challenge, potential employees complete a one-week tryout period, says Cyndi O’Bannon, TIAA-CREF’s regional consultant for the Fruits of Employment program.
“We can teach them to do the job, but we have to see if they have the aptitude to be farmers,” O’Bannon says.
The jobs are physically demanding, and during the height of harvest season employees work 10-hour days, six days a week. Once they’re trained, the autistic employees show a great deal of dedication and determination.
“Most people not on the autism spectrum get bored,” Davis says. But for someone with autism, “routine isn’t a problem for them.”
In fact, those with autism tend to thrive when paying close attention to detail and following rules but have trouble improvising, says Ami Klin, chief of autism and related disorders at the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University in Atlanta. They also tend to be extremely reliable and have a strong work ethic.
“Intentions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs are hard for them to grasp,” Klin says. “They are used to predicable behavior.”
Walgreens first piloted hiring autistic workers at its distribution center in Anderson, South Carolina, in 2007, and since then the practice has spread throughout its facilities. Managers are instructed not to use metaphors and to be exact and direct with their use of language.
To assist employees, Walgreens “created a lot of job aids—both words and pictures—to convey how to do the steps of the jobs,” says Russell, the Walgreens manager. Computers use icon-based touch screens and walk workers through their tasks. “It’s much better for anybody. It’s very user-friendly.”
The Badger Mountain orchard uses signs throughout, and because people with autism can be visually overwhelmed and the orchard has almost 1 million trees, workers are urged to focus on one tree at a time, Davis says.
Autistic employees also can be subject to sensory overload, so Walgreens has created a space at its Anderson facility equipped with bean bag chairs and puzzles, where workers can go to calm down, Russell says.
Now the company is running a pilot program to hire and train people with autism to work in its stores.
Like anyone else, employees with autism must perform their job properly. “This is not a charity thing,” Russell says. “You don’t keep people around who aren’t performing well.”
To make the effort work, it’s crucial to get managers onboard; they may have fears because of their lack of exposure to autistic workers, Russell says. At Walgreens, managers wrote down their concerns, such as worries over how autistic employees would deal with customers, or whether there would be an increased likelihood of them being involved in accidents at the distribution centers, and then discussed them.
“We just haven’t had any of that happen,” she says.
Managers also received specific training on how people with autism learn and communicate.
James Emmett, a human resources consultant with Rockville, Maryland-based APSE, which focuses on career opportunities for those with disabilities, has worked with TIAA-CREF and Walgreens to design their programs. Emmett says companies considering hiring people with autism should work with local vocational rehabilitation programs to help recruit employees. Some companies use a job coach who comes from a vocational program to help train new employees.
While companies like Walgreens and TIAA-CREF did in-depth preparation, Emmett says that isn’t always necessary. “As long as the pilot starts small, I don’t see too much risk in it.”
And with the opportunity to work, those with autism can gain social skills, grow as people and become more financially independent, Emmett says.
Anthony Wilk, who began working at Badger Mountain in 2009, said he was attracted to the job because he had done landscaping work and thought working at the orchard would give him valuable experience.
Since taking the job the 34-year-old has purchased a car and hopes to one day move out on his own. “It has given me self-confidence and helps me grow. It does help me with my self-esteem.”
Through her work at Badger Mountain, O’Bannon has found “people transcend their labels. If they need a skill to retain their job, they pick that up.”
Representatives from more than 100 companies have visited Walgreens’ South Carolina facility to see how the company embraces workers with autism. Russell’s advice for companies that are considering hiring autistic employees: “Don’t overthink it, just do it.”
Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.