Paying attention to detail, following directions, recognizing patterns. These are just a few strengths individuals on the autism spectrum exhibit. However, these attributes are often overlooked.
As parents of young adults with autism, Becky Llorens and Teri Walden of Columbia saw those strengths. They also saw a lack of post-secondary education options for their sons.
And so EnCircle Technologies was created. Llorens and Walden launched the nonprofit in 2013 with the aim of creating a program that helps individuals on the autism spectrum develop marketable skills. EnCircle Technologies provides technical and computer training and currently offers four classes: HTML/CSS 2, Linux, professional development skills and WordPress. There are seven students enrolled for the summer term, and each class meets once per week.
Scott Standifer, a faculty member at the University of Missouri’s School of Health Professions and an expert in the area of autism and employment programs, sees that same lack of options that Llorens and Walden are trying to address. “We’ve got real good indications that employment for people with autism is a major problem,” Standifer said.
Walden said the jobs that are out there are typically for lower-skilled work.
“Although they are capable of that, we knew they were capable of more,” Walden said. “And they gravitated toward the computer just as a hobby, so we knew they definitely had some intelligence and skills to be able to do computer work, so it was a natural fit.”
Llorens said there are students with autism who have the capacity to learn skills the workforce needs, but communication is often a barrier.
“People with autism routinely fail the interview process,” Standifer said.
To address that issue, EnCircle Technologies also provides training designed to build soft skills like communication and teamwork.
A frustrating search
Ian Lloyd, 18, is a current student at EnCircle Technologies. Lloyd said he has experienced difficulties finding a job.
“Last year, during the summer, my parents had me look for jobs nonstop,” he said. “It got very frustrating and repetitive.”
Since starting classes with EnCircle Technologies, Lloyd said he feels differently about the prospect of finding work.
“Better prepared,” he said. “[I have] a better idea of my skills and what places to apply rather than just about every single place that has a job opening in Columbia, which is what I did.”
Companies often don’t know what it means when job candidates identify themselves as having autism, Standifer said. He said individuals on the autism spectrum can have excellent skills and be outstanding workers, but a lot of companies are missing out on them.
“It doesn’t take much to get them in and give you a competitive advantage,” Standifer said.
Standifer also said research shows that accommodations in the workplace can be simple and inexpensive – things like writing lists, making clear instructions and speaking concretely. But he said the autism population is very diverse, so diverse options are needed.
At EnCircle, students like Lloyd pay tuition per class to cover the cost of instructors. Llorens and Walden footed the bill for some of EnCircle’s initial equipment, space rental, insurance and legal fees. They also launched an Indiegogo campaign on July 14 with the goal of raising $10,000 to purchase equipment and cover other costs for the program. With 17 days left in the campaign, they had raised $6,910.
Challenges, hope for the road ahead
Brittney Stevenson, an occupational therapist at Columbia’s Thompson Center, praises EnCircle for trying something new, but she also recognizes that challenges remain. “We have so far to go in knowing what we have to do,” Stevenson said, “because the spectrum is so wide.”
Major companies like Walgreens and Leawood, Kan.-based AMC Theatres have created programs that provide support for disability employment. AMC’s FOCUS (Furthering Opportunities, Cultivating Untapped Strengths) program was developed in collaboration with the Autism Society of America. It provides access to employment opportunities for individuals affected by disabilities.
There are programs in Missouri that help people with autism prepare for jobs and find work, but Walden said EnCircle is the only program she knows that focuses on tech and computer training.