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Connecting workers on the autism spectrum with tech jobs

Program aims to tap strengths of those with autistic disorder and Asperger's

By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

April 28, 2013

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Data entry is repetitive and hard to do well — that is, quickly and accurately. Shane Foley is great at it.

The 21-year-old Ellicott City man works on two computer screens, eyeing images of handwritten sheets on one and clicking the information into a program on the other. His boss gives him a glowing review. So does the head of the state agency whose contract he's working on.

Really something for a young man whose neurologist told his parents, many years ago, to consider institutionalizing him.

Foley, who has autism, is the first employee of a program for Marylanders with autism-spectrum disorders. The goal: Connect participants with autism and Asperger's syndrome to tech jobs that put strengths — such as logical thinking and a high ability to focus — to good use, whether it's data entry, like Foley's job, or software testing.

"We're very much believers in the abilities of all peoples with disabilities, and like to focus on what people can do," said Catherine Raggio, secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities. "We want businesses to know that Maryland has a whole lot of talented people who they may never have considered for employment before."

She got the ball rolling for the program, dubbed Aspire, but it's not state-run. Instead, it operates as a staffing agency through Glen Burnie-based PDG Inc., a company that specializes in services for people with disabilities. PDG hired Foley in November, trained him and got him started on contract work for the state Department of Juvenile Services.

So far, that's the only contract — the program is in the pilot stage. But Morris Tranen, PDG's CEO, expects to have more contracts and employees this year. He's visiting businesses and pitching the concept.

"There's a lot of interest out there," said Tranen, whose goal for the program once it ramps up is to cover all costs with contract revenue. "People have said, 'Well, come back when you're ready.' … Now it's really a matter of going out and testing the model — will they really make the hires that they said they would?"

Sam Abed, Maryland's secretary of juvenile services, is an enthusiastic supporter of the program, thanks to Foley's near-flawless data entry. (In five months, he's made a single mistake. And that was at the very beginning.)

"We have people who could do it but weren't doing as good a job as this young man is doing," Abed said. "It just really fills the need for us in a great way."

Health officials refer to the "spectrum" of autism because there's great variance in symptoms.

Autistic disorder — so-called classic autism — often causes substantial language delays as well as social and communication challenges. Those with Asperger's typically don't have language problems, and their IQ is normal or above average, but find social situations a never-ending challenge. Picking up on body-language cues, for instance, or making friends can be difficult.

Raggio said she initially planned on a program to help adults with Asperger's get work, but then organizers connected with Foley. His job performance convinced them that they should consider workers with classic autism as well.

"You sit him down with a pile of data, and he just doesn't look up till it's finished," Tranen said.

One in 50 children ages 6 to 17 has an autism-spectrum diagnosis, according to a March analysis by the National Center for Health Statistics. Numbers have risen rapidly in recent years. At least some of the increase is driven by increased awareness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Nearly 10,000 children in the Maryland public school system last fall had an autism diagnosis, up from about 4,100 a decade earlier, according to the state's special-education census.

Health officials say the amount of assistance for this population is inadequate. More than a third of young adults on the autism spectrum are neither working nor in college, a substantially higher percentage than peers with a learning disability or mental retardation, according to a 2012 study partially funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Young adults on the autism spectrum "experience unique challenges in finding work or enrolling in appropriate educational opportunities after leaving high school," the institute said.

That was driven home to Tranen when he recently interviewed a man with Asperger's who has a bachelor's degree in mathematics.

"He has not been able to get a job in six years, but he's got the skills," Tranen said. "So we want to try to work on the wraparound supports to help him become employed. And there are a lot of these folks out there."

Tranen intends to ease the transition to work with training — for employees and, if needed, for co-workers who aren't on the autism spectrum. The goal is for Aspire employees to work onsite at the companies or agencies for which they're contracting.

"A lot of it is … just opening some people's eyes to this unique disability," Tranen said. "And figuring out how, with some very modest accommodations, we can create jobs for people that are really of tremendous benefit to the employers. It's not a charitable act. It's smart business."

Shanna Pool, assistant principal of Kennedy Krieger Institute's special-education high school in Baltimore, said tech jobs can be a good fit for people with autism or Asperger's.

"It's not necessary to read emotions when they're working on computers, or social cues," she said. "It's more concrete, straightforward and logical, and generally their thinking is concrete, straightforward and logical."

Other efforts — in the country and overseas — focus on the technology sector. The nonPareil Institute in Texas, for instance, hires people with spectrum disorders to produce smartphone apps and e-books.

The nonprofit, founded in 2008 by two men who have sons on the spectrum, also is training 120 students in technical fields.

"We need some big solutions, and we need a lot of them," said Gary W. Moore, the institute's co-founder and president. "Our goal is to get a paycheck in these kids' pocket, and we feel technology is a way to do it for many of them because of their affinity for technology."

Julie Foley, Shane Foley's mother, said her son prepared for a data-entry job, taking IT classes in school and doing data entry in a work-study program. The family found out about the Aspire program by chance — the Howard County school system's director of special education heard about it and immediately thought of the Foleys.

Now Shane Foley does the job from one of the office cubicles at The Arc of Howard County, close to home. It's his first paid position. (His mother declined to say how much he earns per hour, but she said it's more than minimum wage.)

Though he speaks in one- or several-word phrases, Foley has no trouble communicating how much he loves the work. He's laser-focused on it. He's smiling. And when asked what he thinks of it, he responded, "Yay!"

The Department of Juvenile Services is testing a point system to reward incarcerated youths for good behavior. Foley's job is to record each young adult's points, broken down by time and behavior categories. It takes him an hour or less each day to enter the previous day's records, except on Mondays, when he has the weekend to handle.

Foley is eligible for a state-funded counselor, a position unrelated to the Aspire program. Rosemaria Batts is with him as he does his paid work in the morning before they move on to his volunteer work with Meals on Wheels and the Columbia Association. She sees how he enters information, how he catches problems like incorrect dates or missing records.

"He's very meticulous," Batts said. And besides that, "he's sweet and he's nice and just so easy to be with."

Julie Foley said her son enjoys earning money, but he loves the work for its own sake. And it has opened his horizons, making him more social.

"It gives him a sense of identity on multiple levels — not just what do you do, but who do you do it with?" she said. "As a parent, I'm just thankful every day."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

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