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Making space for autistic workers

by Paul Glavic
Feb 06, 2013

Oran Weitzberg is a bright and affable guy with a college degree and little sense of time elapsing. He worked for three years as a cashier at a large retail and pharmaceutical store in the Chicago area, and he did a nice enough job with most tasks of that position. But his downfall was the magazine rack. Weitzberg’s employer mandated that workers who stood during their shifts received a short break each hour — a nice gesture, it would seem. So Weitzberg, like many of his co-workers, used those breaks to peruse the store’s glossy offerings. But when it was time to return to his shift, Weitzberg did not come back because Weitzberg’s mind does not process the passing of 20 minutes, not even in the form of a self-imposed imploration to glance down at his watch.

What was really an issue of neurological particularity was construed as a matter of self-discipline and, eventually, insubordination. It led to Weitzberg’s dismissal, according to his father, Moshe. (Representatives for his former employer declined to comment on this matter, but a spokeswoman for the company offered a fine platitude, saying that her company “believes in the value of a diverse workforce.”) Oran Weitzberg was done in at work by a physiological inability to keep track of time.

He has an autism spectrum disorder, and a recent study shows he is far from alone. If statistics published last year by the Center for Disease Control are accurate, autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world today. Back in 1992, one in every 150 U.S. children was diagnosed with autism. But in 2012 that number skyrocketed as one in every 88 children — and one in every 54 boys — in the U.S. demonstrated some version of the disorder. Mark Roithmayr, who was the president of Autism Speaks when the 2012 figures were released, responded to the news by calling autism an epidemic in the U.S. “We are dealing with a national emergency that is in need of a national plan,” he said.

As schools scramble to create education models that tend to the diverse needs of students with autism, there is not as much institutional oversight to shepherd the destiny of these same people once they enter the workforce. An estimated 500,000 people with autism will enter the workforce in the next 10 years, so, without intervention, Oran Weitzberg’s ostracization at work could become a common story.

Moshe Weitzberg and his wife, Brenda, did intervene. In 2007, they formed Aspiritech, a software testing company structured to employ their son and people who are neurologically similar to him — educated and talented people who wanted to work hard but happened to have inordinate trouble with anything from 20-minute breaks to clamorous sounds to flickering lights.

People with autism often struggle to find sustainable employment arrangements in part because of society's hesitance to trust their competencies. This only compounds the problem, Moshe Weitzberg says, because it results in them being handed tasks that a “neurotypical” person might deem easier but are actually more challenging for someone with autism. “A lot of people will have problems with motor skills,” he explains, noting that retail and food industry jobs often task those along the spectrum with bagging or sweeping chores that conflict with fine motor difficulties. “It doesn’t fit the physics of their ability. And the things they can do really well ... nobody believes they can do it.”

If the adversity facing workers with autism was strictly the tasks that demand fine motor skills, the issue could be resolved by implementing protocols akin to policies that protect some laborers from lifting more than 40 or 50 pounds in the workplace. But the adversity extends beyond the assignment of responsibilities, Moshe Weitzberg says. The underlying problem is environmental. “The problem is not the task,” he says. “The problem is the anxieties.”

From schedules to sounds, the culture inside many workplaces can stifle the effectiveness of autistic workers. In recent years, autism advocates have called for “universal designs” and neurologically diverse work environments that recognize the sensory sensitivities of many people along the spectrum.

At Aspiritech, workers use headphones in order to drown out the audible commotion of mouse clicks and scraps of paper shuffling in the office. The fluorescent lighting in its Highland Park, Ill., office is not considered ideal for people on the autism spectrum, but none of the employees have expressed discontent with the bluish white luminosity. Everyone knows they can voice concerns or go to the office’s adjacent safe room when something triggers their anxieties. But the most valuable asset Aspiritech brings to neurological diversity is probably Marc Lazar, whom Moshe and Brenda Weitzberg hired in 2011 to be the organization’s autism specialist. Lazar assists Moshe in the role of staff confidant and coordinates Aspiritech’s grant-funded social component designed to enhance the staff personally and professionally.

“We will go on trips to museums,” Lazar says. “We’ll go out bowling and go out to meals. We did a six-week long team-building course — we hired some professional facilitators to help run that.” Each week, Lazar and an assistant conduct an hour-long social skills session that reviews any professional social dynamics that warrant extra attention. “We go over different areas that folks have difficulty with, really focusing on the unwritten rules of social interaction, things that everybody seems to know but are never written down. Those are the things that people on the spectrum struggle with and can really hurt them in a workplace environment, knowing topics that are off limits like politics and religion, things like that.”

Lazar says that one of the problems people with high-functioning autism face in the workplace is that their adversity is not obvious to the untrained eye. (Many of Aspiritech’s employees were originally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome rather than autism. But the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders formally incorporated Asperger’s into the autism spectrum in December 2012.) “You often hear Asperger's described as an invisible disability because you don't notice any overt differences until you spend a lot of time with a person or you’re around the person in a stressful situation,” Lazar says. “When you're in a stressful environment, you may see behaviors that aren't accepted in a typical workplace.”

The Aspiritech model is one of so-called “supported employment.” It’s a marketplace environment that is neurologically diverse but mainly employs people on the autism spectrum with the help of a specialist like Lazar. But there are multiple theories and models regarding the best way to organize advocacy and create opportunities. Specialisterne, a Danish company that recently expanded to the U.S., uses a “secured employment” model to place workers with businesses (often tech sector companies) and send an autism specialist to check in on their progress. Meanwhile, some autism advocates push for workers to attempt self-employment, while other organizations create “customized employment,” which is essentially self-employment with the administrative oversight of an autism advocate similar to Lazar.

“Sometimes people look at us and criticize, saying we’re isolating people, kind of sheltering people in some way. In some ways it’s a valid concern,” Lazar says. “But the reality is most people here have struggled and failed — not to their own fault — to make it in the regular workplace.”

As the Weitzbergs and Lazar strive to curate a neurologically diverse work environment, Aspiritech has room to improve but no room to grow. After moving to a bigger office just two years ago, the organization’s staff huddles together in its space on the second floor of an externally austere office building three blocks removed from a quaint suburban Main Street. If its stream of clients becomes more consistent, Aspiritech will relocate again to provide each worker with more space and to hire more of the hundreds who wish to work for an autism-embracing employer.

Lazar receives a flurry of inquiries from potential workers who wish to join his team of software testers. “We get calls pretty much every day from families and from people along the spectrum,” he says. Meanwhile the list of new clients does not keep up. While Aspiritech retains the overwhelming majority of its clients for ongoing projects, Moshe Weitzberg says the stigma surrounding autism hinders growth potential. Prospective clients struggle to see that working with Aspiritech could be a savvy business decision, not a charitable gesture.

While a smaller company such as Aspiritech can fight to earn the trust of clients, Lazar would also like to see trusted larger corporations — particularly in the tech sector, a field in which many with autism express interest — foster more employment opportunities and appropriate work environments for people with autism. “The Googles, the Apples, the Microsofts — if they could somehow be willing to create programs that would develop talents of folks on the spectrum who could be really valuable to the company . . . there's always going to be a huge need for software testing,” Lazar says.

Today Oran Weitzberg, like most of his Aspiritech co-workers, enjoys greater success than in his previous job. His inability to process the passing of time has turned into an asset as he wades through what many would consider the pedantic minutiae of software testing. He handles more responsibility than in his old cashier work, and he does it with proficiency that many software employees would be challenged to rival. Oran does not take a mandatory break every hour these days. For him, that’s more than all right.

His father cannot meet the needs of the half-million people with autism who will be unemployed or underemployed if workplaces in the U.S. fail to become more neurologically diverse. But he chips away at the iceberg. With the help of someone like Lazar, he tries to improve the lives of his son and others, young people with autism who enter adulthood amid uncertain futures and momentous questions regarding employment.

And he exudes a paternal gleam when he tells the story of Lazar’s attention and the social component of Aspiritech making demonstrative differences in the life of one former employee. “He came to our fundraiser event and he spoke in front of everybody, kind of almost impromptu — we didn't even know he was going to talk,” Moshe Weitzberg says of his former staff member. “And he talked about how much Aspiritech helped him get the confidence to get another job. He was at a point before where he was demoralized — he kind of gave up on finding work. He got to Aspiritech and found out how valuable he is.”

Moshe Weitzberg insists that this is not the archetypal success story at Aspiritech. He’s not training people with the intention of sending them off to other jobs. Aspiritech is like any other workplace, he says, and would benefit from staff longevity and internal promotion among employees. But it is clear he is proud. “He knows he can come back,” Moshe Weitzberg says. “We’ll send them out to see if they can survive in the marketplace, but they know they can come back.”