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August 23, 2019

6/4/2019 7:30:00 AM
Supporting a neuro-diverse community - Autistic employees in the workplace
Leanna: 'This is a population that is under-employed, but doesn't need to be'
Abigail Bostwick
Of The Lakeland Times

As the Northwoods continues to experience a significant lack of employees, one local entrepreneur has an option for businesses to consider: Supporting a neuro-diverse workforce by hiring autistic community members.

"A lot of people have misconceptions it's too difficult to hire or train autistic individuals," said April Leanna, founder and operator of Starlight Centers for Inclusion in Eagle River. "We're trying to break some of those misconceptions."

Starlight Centers for Inclusion, in operation for about three years now and built on the dream of Leanna, provides one-on-one behavioral treatment utilizing programs designed exclusively for each client. Starlight's autism behavioral treatment professionals, specially trained in autism treatment, work with children ages 2 and up to adulthood at age 21.

"It's one of the reasons I love this job," Leanna said. "We don't just get them for one year. We see them from age 2 up to graduation, sometimes beyond."

Starlight has eight employees, and are looking for more. At the helm, Leanna herself is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) with a masters in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and applied behavior analysis (ABA), and has extensive experience working with individuals with disabilities in family home, residential, clinical, community and center-based programs.

Starlight's programs include social groups, caregiving training and Northwoods inclusion.

It's part of that inclusion which Leanna brought to the attention of the Vilas and Oneida county communities recently, specifically with the aid of the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation (VCEDC).

"The VCEDC helped me start, they helped me grow. We work really well together, it's a great fit," said Leanna, who now serves on the VCEDC Board. Leanna shares their vision and passion to grow job opportunities and economic growth across the Northwoods area. "It was my dream to open this (Starlight). Not just for myself, but also to give myself a career up here."

As a community and VCEDC board member, Leanna recognizes and understands firsthand it can not only be a challenge to find employment for young professionals in Wisconsin's northern counties, but also employees.

Autism spectrum disorder is defined as "persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction," with restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviors, activities or interests.

"This is a population that is under-employed, but doesn't need to be," she observed. "You go around and you see so many help wanted signs for jobs. (This) can help so many positions, fill these job vacancies."

Leanna's clientele are young, but she sees their potential to grow up and become active contributing members of society, including in the workforce. She and Starlight also are advocates of the local autism community as a whole.



'Time to change the mindset'

During a recent business luncheon with VCEDC, Leanna spoke on the education of the local autistic community and also their strengths as employees and potential hires.

"Helping autistic people find jobs helps everyone. It helps the autistic person, the business, the parents that may be care-taking," Leanna pointed out. "And this is just the start."

Autistic employees carry many strengths employers may not readily understand or see. Breaking the stigma of autism is part of the matter, Leanna indicated.

Misconceptions include that autistic individuals may be socially and communication delayed, only have repetitious behavior or be unable to learn or listen.

"Rather than look at (autism) as a challenge, see it as a strength," Leanna said. "It's time to change the mindset."

Social differences associated with autism can mean autistic employees won't be so interested in chatting with their neighbor employee, or partaking in office gossip, Leanna said.

Their sometimes repetitive, patterned or routine behavior can provide an employee excited and committed to show up day after day, ready to do the same job, the same routine, with the same or similar results every time.

"They have routine, with high standards," Leanna said. "Many employers have said, 'If I could have an employee that shows up and does the same good job everyday, that'd be fantastic.'"

Another stigma - that autistic individuals tend to hyper focus on one subject - also has its strengths. Autistic persons often are eager and enthusiastic to learn, thus more willing to attend more training or conferences to build their skillset.

"They may be more willing to teach more customers about the product the business is offering," Leanna said.

Autistic employees do not need supervision, expensive or different training, extra staff and they are capable of learning new things and understanding directions, Leanna said.

There are some simple methods which may help accommodate an autistic worker, she said, such as being clear and concise and giving directions for a job.

That can start as early as the application stage, by encouraging requests for accommodations in the workplace. In some situations, limiting the number of interviews, inviting a support team, giving phone or video interview options, providing questions beforehand, limiting distractions and using literal language and slow speech without vague questions are some basic steps that would help, Leanna said. Written questionnaires and skill-based competency tests also can be beneficial, she said.

"Certain training ways might help them, not every person is perfect for every job," Leanna said. "For autism, there may be different strategies to train them."

After hire, training and support can include having a mentor who the new hire can ask questions of and request support, have frequent but brief check-ins with direct and respectful feedback and permitting processing time. A company-wide sensitivity training could help all on board, as well as some discrimination policies, Leanna noted.

"Being autistic is part of an individual, but it doesn't define them," Leanna stated. "Autism can be something to be proud of."

Also helpful can be visual supports like descriptions, agendas, visual schedules, checklists and video models. Employers can minimize unexpected changes in routines or give warnings as well as breaking down duties and structure a workspace for maximized productivity and decreased distractions.

Autistic people can learn new tasks and different things.

"I've seen it firsthand, and it is awesome," noted Leanna, who has come across former clients in workplaces and been proud to see them there, thriving.



Filling empty positions by thinking differently

From a young age, Starlight is already preparing children to have a career someday. They identify their strengths, focus on those, and work with ones that may need it, Leanna indicated.

The impact of hiring more autistic people can positively enhance economic and social impact, feed progressive and innovative thinking and development and create new business, products and methods, Leanna indicated.

"We can fill some of these empty positions by thinking differently," Leanna encouraged. "With more in the workforce, there's more money being made, more money being spent, more contributions to the community. It's so good to have different minds working together."

Embracing people with special needs benefits everyone, Leanna observed.

"When we have a neuro-diverse workplace, that's where new ideas truly come from," Leanna added. "It helps us think differently. It's really neat to see that happen."

Being open-minded also can help, Leanna said.

"If a person or employee isn't acting exactly how we expect them to be, does it impact their job? If they are short with us, or not talking or actively engaging ... just because it's different, does that matter or impact the job or the product?" Leanna questioned. "We're so rigid. It's OK to be open-minded and have some consideration in our community. We live in a small community, where we have the chance to make a big difference, and see it. That's part of why I love it here."

Leanna said she has found some support among business owners in the communities Starlight works, and has found increased education opportunities in the area - such as the VCEDC luncheon.

The ultimate goal, she pointed out, is to help autistic individuals become a part of the community while also showing the community they are great members and capable of being a part of the society.

Anyone looking to learn more or receive some education about autistic employees in the workplace can contact Starlight for resources.

Starlight Centers for Inclusion is at 555 Enterprise Way in Eagle River. For more information, call 608-317-6711 or email information@starlightcenters.org.





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