Over the weekend I went with friends to a fundraiser for AANE, a group that works “to help people with Asperger Syndrome and similar autism spectrum profiles build meaningful, connected lives.” The focus of this year’s program was on finding jobs for adults. It turns out that TJX, the parent company of Home Goods and T.J. Maxx, has been the regional leader in hiring people with Asperger Syndrome (AS). Most members of the audience were cheering for the young adults who got these jobs and/or the counselors who helped them get and keep them. As someone who has spent time in the business world, I was cheering for TJX management devoting time and resources to integrating the “neurodiverse” into their “neurotypical” workforce.
In a nation where 2.5 million people apply every year for disability payments from one program (SSDI) alone (source), it was startling to hear young adults with AS and ASD stand up and talk about how much it meant to them to have a job, even a minimum wage retail job. With the media full of stories about sex discrimination (see Ellen Pao) and anti-gay discrimination (see Tim Cook), do Americans have any attention left over to think about other kinds of discrimination? Speaker Marie McRae said that the answer is no: “It is easier to be an openly out lesbian than to be out as ‘on the spectrum’ at work.”
There are laws against discriminating against people with disabilities, but they don’t seem to be of much practical help for workers with AS (see this article from 2011, for example). Could it be that the laws actually make it harder to find employers willing to take a chance on a neurodiverse applicant? It seems that most employer-worker matches are unsuccessful. Why incur the litigation risk unless you’re pretty sure that a worker is going to be a long-term success? For an applicant with AS, even advocates for AS/ASD would admit that the chance of a successful long-term career at any given employer is small.
[For those running charities: What kind of auction items did well? Weeks at nearby vacation houses did well. Weeks at far away vacation houses, e.g., in Mexico, did not. Cruises sold at about the same prices you see on the web discount sites. A donated helicopter ride sold in the silent auction for roughly retail price. Sports tickets and “chef coming to your house” sold at substantial markups to retail.]