September 11, 2017

Dell EMC latest to embrace autism hiring in Central Massachusetts

Matt Wright
Amanda Fabio, 27, works in an office in Framingham part-time. Fabio is on the autism spectrum, and has always been determined to work, according to her mother, Denise Fabio.

In the three months that 20-year-old Joseph Berry has been working as a machine operator at medical device company Tegra Medical in Franklin, he's found the job a good fit.

"I really like the experience and it's really good working a full-time job at such a young age," he said.

Berry said he feels especially lucky to have the position since he's on the autism spectrum, something he knows can be a challenge in many workplaces.

"I'm really glad that they were looking to hire me, knowing about my disability, because I've heard about many (employers) that find out that their employees have autism and look for a reason to fire them," he said.

Berry's hiring is part of a growing trend in Central Massachusetts and beyond in which companies, social service providers, and people with autism and their families are working together to boost employment among a group that has historically faced discrimination and a lack of job opportunities.

Employment on the spectrum

Among adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) who use state developmental disability services, only 14 percent have jobs in their communities, even though 27 percent say they'd like to, according to a recent study by Drexel University's Life Course Outcomes Research Program. Another 15 percent work in paid jobs at facilities serving people with disabilities.

Laurie Stewart, human resources manager for the Tegra Medical facility, said the company has been working with the Franklin-based autism services provider Horace Mann Educational Associates (HMEA) to make sure Tegra Medical is welcoming and supportive for employees with ASD. That includes providing training for supervisors and managers.

Knowing strengths, weaknesses

"They need to have a basic understanding of ASD so they know when the person might need some help because they're not necessarily going to come up and say something on their own," she said.

For Berry, it was helpful that his supervisors and coworkers understood "stimming"—behaviors like arm flapping and rocking that people with autism sometimes use to calm themselves and cope with difficult situations.

"Sometimes I look a little weird to others when I do certain things," he said. "I still have a little bit of trouble with that, but it's no problem because I still get the job done right ... I'm quick with numbers. I figure things out pretty quickly."

Denise Fabio, an advocate for people with autism, whose 27-year-old daughter, Amanda, is on the spectrum, said it's crucial for employers to know that every person with ASD has their own strengths and weaknesses. She said Amanda has an enormous drive to succeed. At 16, she took the initiative to ask for a job at a McDonald's restaurant while the two were eating out. She ended up holding the job for more than two years.

Today, Amanda works at the Association of Developmental Disability Providers in Framingham, doing administrative office work like answering the phone and organizing supplies, as well as helping with the organization's lobbying work and conferences.

"Social is not really who Amanda is, but she happens to be very focused, and she has purpose," Denise said.

She said the most important way the organization has supported her daughter is simply respecting her.

"They're respectful of who she is and what she does, as they are of one another," she said.

At Imperial Distributors Inc., another local company that has been working to hire more people with autism and disabilities, human resources manager Celina Rosa said it's crucial that employees get that kind of respect from coworkers.

"It's really important when a company is focusing on working with people who are differently able that you spend the time with your current team members to educate them," she said.

Imperial has been working with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) to accommodate workers needs and learn to manage behaviors.

"I think what's most helpful, is just taking the time to understand what each individual needs."

HMEA is now expanding its own work to address the specific needs of people on the autism spectrum who have strong intellectual skills but have trouble with social interactions.

"If you have autism, you may not look the person in the eye," said HMEA CEO Michael Moloney.

Dell EMC, HMEA adopt Danish model

Partnering with Dell EMC in Hopkinton, it's using a model developed in Denmark based on the idea that many people with ASD have strong attention to detail and ability to focus. Moloney said the organizations are working together to recruit a cohort of prospective employees. The group will spend time on the corporate campus getting to know the company culture and letting hiring managers observe their work, rather than going through a traditional interview process. Those who are hired will get mentors to help them navigate the workplace.

EMC's Kristine Biagiotti-Bridges, a senior adviser at Dell EMC and a member of HMEA's board, said the company is starting out by seeking job candidates for engineering and accounting jobs—two fields where the focus and attention to detail that many people with ASD have can be a huge help.

From college to career

Dell EMC and HMEA are working with local colleges to connect with potential employees who might struggle with traditional hiring processes.

"These are folks that may have gone and gotten a four-year degree and have gone home and haven't had a good experience with trying to find a job," Biagiotti-Bridges said.

For some people, a good work experience can bring out abilities they didn't know they had. At 17, Christian Tsetsos began working at Behavioral Concepts Inc., a Worcester-based educational services organization that had provided him with support during his high school years. He said he lacked confidence at the time.

At first Tsetsos worked part-time, doing administrative work, but after finishing college and going full-time, he took on the work of dealing with complicated insurance paperwork. Then he decided to take on a new challenge.

"I slowly became more involved. It took small steps, but I was able to make myself more comfortable over time," Tsetsos said.

Eleven years after starting the job, Tsetsos now works with parents whose children just received autism diagnoses, walking them through the process of getting services through BCI, and he helps with orientation for new employees.

"He's truly the face of BCI," said BCI's CEO Jeffrey Robinson. "He's an amazing young man."

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