Who Will Give Devin a Chance?

Adults with autism and the search for employment
By Michael Purvis
Updated April 9, 2012

Devin Stevenson says he knows autism often holds him back.

He sometimes has trouble focusing. He has a tendency to get overly engrossed in one aspect of a task. And, if you were to explain something to Devin, he might need you to repeat it a second time, though he is quick to point out he’s not being purposefully inattentive.

“It‘s not because I‘m ignoring people,” said Stevenson.

“It’s almost like there’s a filter in my mind and only certain things get through.”

Despite all that, Stevenson, 26, has worked hard not to let autism stop him from doing the things he wants to do.

He volunteers extensively, and over the course of the last 10 years has peeled logs for a home-building company, worked on a landscaping crew, graduated from Sault College and pursued his passion for history in courses at Algoma University. He has one more lesson before he takes the test to get his driver’s licence, and he’s working on his black belt in taekwondo.

But so far, he hasn’t been able to find the kind of meaningful employment he dreams of, and that his parents believe he is entirely capable of doing.

“Devin has a lot to give,” said his mother, Mary-Lou Morassut.

With one in every 88 children now believed to be born with autism, some expect Stevenson’s story to become increasingly common.

Kim Seabrook is one of them. She worries each year about job prospects as a larger and larger cohort of kids with autism grow into adulthood.

“This wave of kids (coming) is huge. It’s bigger than the wave that came before it and it’s only getting bigger,” said Seabrook, president of the Sault Ste. Marie chapter of Autism Ontario.

Last week, the U.S. Center for Disease Control said it believes autism is far more common than once thought, affecting one in every 88 children born. Previously, it was believed to affect one in 110 children, and the ratio has been steadily closing over the last decade.

Seabrook said she worries about the implications if more isn’t done to find a way to help those children who are capable of working to get jobs when they grow up. She is concerned it will mean more adults with autism relying on disability benefits and more parents of “low-functioning,” adults will need to leave the workforce to care for their children.

“No one’s preparing for this, and it’s going to be ugly,” said Seabrook.

Morassut was a first-time mother when her son was born. She hadn’t then heard of autism, and she didn’t really start to suspect anything was out of the ordinary until Stevenson turned two and hadn’t begun to speak. A speech expert sent him to sick kids the next year, and at the age of four he was diagnosed with autism.

Morassut has seen her son graduate from high school and then college, and she said what she most wants now is to see him in a good part-time job, where he works with other people.

So far, it hasn‘t happened, despite a lot of effort.

There are job preparation courses and other aids for people with disabilities, and they have been somewhat helpful for Stevenson, says his mother. But she said she wishes there was more available.

She said Community Living Algoma’s Moving On program, which has created jobs for people with disabilities by opening an electronics recycling depot where they can work, is the kind of thing she wishes were available for higher-functioning adults like her son.

“That has to happen more,” said Morassut.

Seabrook too said she would like to see more resources put into job opportunities, rather than early intervention, where the focus seems to be now.

“A lot of funding is going into researching cause, and to be quite honest, as a parent with a child with autism, the cause is less important to me than supporting them as they develop and supporting them in their communities throughout their lives,” she said.

Seabrook said some employers are beginning to pay attention.

She points to U.S. drugstore chain Walgreens, where a senior vice-president who has an autistic son started a program that hires people with disabilities at distribution centres.

A Danish firm hires out people with autism and other disabilities as consultants to companies where their abilities fit. It was set up by a father who set out to find a fulfilling job for his autistic son.

Seabrook said the key is finding places where people with autism excel.

Not everyone with autism has the same ability to work.

“The mantra within the autism community is, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism spectrum disorder, you’ve met one person with autism spectrum disorder,’” said Seabrook.

But she said people with autism can be meticulous workers, and absenteeism and safety is typically not an issue.

“They don’t mind working Saturdays, they’re just happy to be employed,” she said.

For the last two months, Stevenson has been volunteering twice a week at a local daycare. His mother said he seems to be good with children, so she encouraged him to give it a try. Now, they’re waiting to find out whether he is doing well enough that it might be a realistic job opportunity.

“We’re doing that to see if it’s a good fit for him, if he should take the course at Sault College,” said Morassut.

Morassut and her husband did the same with the library after their son showed an interest in that type of work. But Stevenson tends to throw himself into his school work, at the expense of all else, so when no job prospects came from the library, they didn’t encourage him to pursue it.

Stevenson said he realizes he may not find his dream job, which is why he has made a point of experiencing different types of jobs – from working in the library to doing physical labour outdoors.

“I’m passionate about history, but I want to expand my horizons and keep an open mind,” he said.

Reproduced from http://www.saultstar.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=3527688