Color & Control:

It’s good for you!

Top 10 Reasons to Volunteer

10) It’s good for you.
Volunteering provides both physical and mental health rewards. 
• Reduces stress: Experts report that when you focus on someone other than yourself, it interrupts usual tension-producing patterns. 
• Makes you healthier: Moods and emotions, like optimism and a sense of control over one’s fate, strengthen the immune system.

9) It saves resources.
Volunteering provides valuable community services so more money can be spent on
local improvements.

8) Volunteers gain professional experience.
You can test out a career.

7) It brings people together.
As a volunteer, you can assist in:
• Uniting people from diverse backgrounds to work toward a common goal.
• Building camaraderie and teamwork.

6) It promotes personal growth and self esteem.
Understanding community needs helps foster empathy and self-efficacy.

5) Volunteering strengthens your community.
You can help with activities that:
• Support families (daycare and eldercare).
• Improve schools (tutoring, literacy).
• Support youth (mentoring and after-school programs).
• Beautify the community (beach and park cleanups).

4) You learn a lot.
Volunteers learn things like these:
• Self: Volunteers discover hidden talents that may change their views on self-worth.
• Government: Through working with local non-profit agencies, volunteers learn about the functions and operation of our government.
• Community: Volunteers gain knowledge of local resources available to solve community needs.

3) You get a chance to give back.
People like to support community resources that they use themselves, or that benefit people they care about or want to get to know.

2) Volunteering encourages civic responsibility.
Community service and volunteerism are an investment in our community and the people who live in it.

1) You make a difference.
Every person counts! 

Combatting ageism in the workplace

Recruiting experienced and skilled workers has become a challenge. No wonder companies are putting in place incentives to hire older workers or to retain those who are contemplating retirement.

Many older workers, however, face stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination because of their age, which may have an impact on their health and well-being, and also on the work climate and productivity.

We need to create work environments that promote the participation of older workers and combat ageism.

Like in most industrialized countries, the Canadian population is aging due to a low fertility rate and a longer life expectancy. The number of young workers entering the labour market is not offsetting the loss of older workers who are retiring, which is causing a labour shortage that is already being felt in many sectors. As a result, recruiting experienced and skilled workers has become a challenge. No wonder companies are putting in place incentives to hire older workers or to retain older workers who are contemplating retirement. Governments are also involved in introducing fiscal measures to delay workers’ retirement or to encourage those in retirement to return to the labour market.

What the research tells us
A recent systematic review examined 43 studies on ageism in the workplace. Four main themes emerged from the analysis:

1) Stereotypes and perceptions of older workers:
Some studies show that positive stereotypes exist about older workers, who are sometimes seen as more sociable, reliable or loyal than younger workers. Nevertheless, the majority of stereotypes associated with older workers are negative: less competent, less productive, unable to use new technologies or learn new things, cognitively and physically limited. These prejudices are unfortunately shared by several employers or human-resource managers, among others.

2) Intended behaviours towards older workers:
Studies show that many employers have negative intentions regarding the hiring of older workers. With equal qualifications, employers seem to prefer hiring a younger worker. Also, human-resource managers are less likely to ask an older worker to update their knowledge and encourage them to take training. Most employers do not intend to retain their older workers for a long period of time, and many older workers end up internalizing these negative perceptions: these older workers will be more likely not to seek training and plan to leave their organization early.

3) Discriminatory practices denounced by older workers:
Studies revealed that there are discriminatory practices in terms of recruitment, hiring, training, promotion and retention of older workers. For example, employers have reported using internet advertisements to limit older workers’ access to job opportunities, believing that older workers do not use the internet in their job search.

4) Strategies used by older workers to deal (or negotiate) with ageism:
Although few studies have addressed this theme, it appears that older workers who have internalized ageism in their workplaces are increasingly disengaged and have lower job expectations. On the other hand, many older job-seekers have adopted strategies to prevent employers from guessing their age, for example, excluding “year of graduation” from their resumes.

Creating age-friendly environments
Older workers are an asset to our society. We need to create an environment conducive to their participation in the labour market and thus combat ageism. But dealing with ageism is not an easy task because we have to combat stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination against older people that go beyond the workplace. That said, many governments and organizations seek to promote the participation of older people in the labour market, including through:
• awareness campaigns to combat ageism;
• financial incentives to hire older workers or support their retention;
• occupational health and safety initiatives targeting older workers;
• favourable fiscal measures such as adjustments to retirement income systems;
• training for older workers to upgrade their skills; and
• adaptation measures in the workplace.

If you are employed (or if you are looking for a job) and you think you are being  discriminated against because of your age, remember that this is illegal. You cannot be denied a job, training or promotion, or forced to retire because of your age. With very few exceptions, mandatory retirement is not allowed in Canada. You can make a complaint to your organization, to your provincial or territorial human rights agency, or to courts on the circumstances. 

McMaster University has developed the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal to give you access to research-based information to help you age well and manage your health conditions. Visit their website ( for the latest evidence-based information to support healthy aging.

The benefits of volunteering as a newcomer TO Canada

Volunteering is an integral part of Canadian culture. Children are encouraged to do it, high school students must complete mandatory volunteer hours, and older adults are known for helping others. 

Adults volunteer their time and skills at charities, non-profit organizations, political parties, religious faith organizations, youth groups and many other places. According to Statistics Canada, in 2013, 44 per cent of the population aged 15 and older participated in some form of volunteer work. 

Volunteering involves giving personal time freely for the benefit of another person, group or cause. According to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), volunteering is the time you give to strengthen your community and improve others’ quality of life as well as your own.

Giving back to the community is usually well-regarded and valued in Canadian society. In this article, we will focus on the importance of volunteering, highlight the benefits it offers, and provide resources to find potential volunteering opportunities. 

Here are a few ways you can realize how important volunteering is to Canadians and how it can benefit you: 

1. Build your network
Volunteering can be a key tool in building your Canadian network. During your initial days or months as a newcomer in Canada, you may not know many people. Cultural differences may limit you from proactively reaching out to locals to build connections. Volunteering offers a forum to meet other like-minded individuals—newcomers and locals alike—and build your social and professional networks. 

Canada has a hidden job market, which refers to positions that are filled without employers publicly advertising them. It is said that 65 per cent to 85 per cent of job openings are not posted. That’s why it’s important to build your network—and volunteering is a great way to get started.

2. Gain Canadian experience
Newcomers in the job search phase can try looking for volunteering opportunities in their field of work. You can also identify roles that involve the usage of skills that are relevant to your profession. Volunteering can help you bridge gaps in your work history while you look for a job and is a good way to gain the much-coveted Canadian experience. Moreover, you can always ask the company you volunteer with to provide reference letters, which can be useful in your job applications.

Volunteering also offers the opportunity to learn new skills and brush up on your English or French language skills. In a survey conducted by Statistics Canada, many stated that their volunteer activities had given them a chance to develop new skills. For example, as per the survey results: 
• 64 per cent said their interpersonal skills had improved, 
• 44 per cent said the volunteer experience had improved their communication skills, 
• 39 per cent reported to have improved organizing skills, 
• 33 per cent improved fundraising skills, 
• 27 per cent improved technical or office skills, and 
• 34 per cent reported that volunteer work had increased their knowledge of certain subjects including health, women’s and political issues, criminal justice and the environment.

3. Keep yourself busy so you don’t get depressed
Volunteering can help you develop empathy and compassion and gather positive life experiences. As a newcomer in a foreign land, away from your friends and family in your home country, it’s very easy to feel isolated, homesick and depressed. Keeping yourself occupied by being involved with the community is a good way to care for your mental well-being. 

Volunteering is also a brilliant way to discover new interests and hobbies, visit different parts of the city and travel. It can help you reduce stress and provide a sense of purpose. 

How can you volunteer in Canada?
ESDC has suggested some ways in which you can volunteer your time:

Show leadership
• Facilitate a strategic planning session
• Chair a fundraising campaign
• Help start a tenants rights association

Management and administration
• Review or help write a human resources manual
• Organize a volunteer schedule for an event
• Enter data at a resource centre
• Provide general office help

Technology and social media
• Design a website for an eldercare co-op
• Write a blog on affordable housing
• Customize a donor database for a food bank
• Teach computer skills in a community centre

Building and handicrafts
• Build a bookshelf for a reading room
• Sew costumes for a play
• Teach card-making in a rehabilitation centre
• Build a stage for marathon ceremonies

Nature and environment
• Walk a dog for a local animal shelter
• Research pesticide bylaws in different cities
• Plant vegetables in a community garden

One-to-one support
• Tutor school-aged children
• Comfort a victim of violence
• Be a mentor to a teenager

Direct service
• Answer the phones for a helpline
• Prepare lunch in a soup kitchen
• Coach a sports team
• Drive people to medical appointments

• Play piano for a sing-along at a retirement residence
• MC at a volunteer service awards night
• Do a stand-up comedy act at a fundraiser
• Join a choir that participates at community events

How to find volunteer opportunities in Canada
Finding a volunteering opportunity that aligns well with your situation and experience might take a bit of research. 

Here are a couple of action items to get you started:

Research: Look up companies and organizations that are offering volunteering positions in your field or find ones that represent causes you care about. Include positions that involve the skills you would use in your desired job—these may be skills that you’re already proficient in or are hoping to learn and improve. Another way to find volunteering opportunities is to keep an eye out for volunteer requests in your neighbourhood.

Connect: Reach out to these organizations by sending an email, contacting them through their website or through their LinkedIn pages to learn more about their needs. Evaluate the areas where you might be able to offer your skills. 

Where to find volunteer opportunities across Canada:
Volunteer Canada
Charity Village
Go Volunteer
LinkedIn’s Volunteer Board
Canadian Volunteer Directory
Heart and Stroke Foundation
CARE Canada
Canadian Red Cross
World Vision Canada

In addition, most provincial government sites and major city websites list volunteering opportunities. For instance, here are the websites for Ontario, British Columbia, Toronto, and Vancouver. 

Giving back to the community is usually well-regarded and valued in Canadian society. As a newcomer, volunteering is a great way to integrate yourself into the community, get to know the local culture, and even improve your chances of finding paid employment opportunities. Volunteering experience also adds immense value to your resume and could be a stepping stone in helping you reach your goals. 

RBC Arrive—an organization dedicated to helping newcomers achieve their life, career and financial goals in Canada.

QUIZ: What’s right for you?

Once a week, or once a month

How do you figure out the best way to make your neighbourhood stronger, protect human rights or help someone out? Whether you are considering making a donation, getting involved in community life or volunteering with an organization, it is not easy to sort through all the campaigns, canvassers and recruiters and figure out your volunteer interests.

Like all good relationships, values and mutual respect between an organization and its volunteers need to be in alignment. Volunteers benefit when they take the time to choose an opportunity, a cause and an organization wisely. This process involves getting to know oneself better by learning more about the issues that matter to you most, be it locally, provincially, nationally or globally.

This Volunteer Quiz is a combination of a personality test and horoscope.  In ten minutes, you can work through 13 questions to help you explore what is important to you, what skills you have to offer, what you would enjoy learning and what kind of organization might suit you best.  Once completed, the Volunteer Quiz will indicate which of the 6 volunteer types you might be. You may discover that you are a Cameo Volunteer, a person who does not want to be front and centre, but who is happy to make an appearance when needed.  Perhaps you are a Roving Consultant, a person with a specialty that can be offered to several different organizations. Maybe you are a Rookie, a person who is just starting out as a volunteer and who is testing the waters.

In addition, the Volunteer Quiz is linked to a Matching Tool on GetInvolved. The tool is easy to use and is constantly being updated with new opportunities.

Get involved and take the quiz at

Find Your Fit

Take these free quizzes and tests

When you’re re-entering the workforce or looking to change positions, it’s important to take a step back and develop a realistic plan. For many of us, it’s been a few years since we looked for work and assessed our skills, wants and needs. So now is the time! 

Part of the search process involves looking at a range of new choices,and exploring the type of jobs that might fit your interests and goals at this stage of your life. Will it be indoors, outdoors, remote or in person, technical or software based? In an office or retail setting, flexible, part-time or full-time? There’s a world of options! 

To make your task easier, we’ve  found a series of free quizzes and tests, created by the Government of Canada that will help you explore the types of jobs available that may suit you well. Divided into sections, with different areas to explore, the collection will help you understand your personality and learning style.  Working through the exercises will assist you on your journey and help you figure out how you can leverage your strengths, determine your interests and explore a variety of  innovative career ideas and options.

FYI: Common Myths

When it comes to giving back, many of us have pre-conceived ideas about the who, what, when, how and why of available volunteer roles. Let’s take a look at some of the more common misconceptions and set things straight.

 MYTH: The only people who volunteer are seniors

The face of volunteerism is changing. In general, younger Canadians are more likely to volunteer than older Canadians. Over one-half of people aged 15 to 24 (58 per cent) and 35 to 44 (54 per cent)), and close to one-half of those aged 25 to 34 (46 per cent)), reported doing volunteer work. In comparison, pre-retirees aged 55 to 64 had a volunteer rate of 4 per cent) in past studies and seniors recorded a rate of 36 per cent). Worth noting, Gen Zers are some of the most socially conscious people out there with passions that are focused on issues that both reflect more traditional values and caring for the greater good.

MYTH: You don’t need any qualifications or skills.

One of the most common misconceptions about volunteering is that there are no qualifications needed to do the tasks. While you might not require extensive or specific experience, most volunteer opportunities need people who have a particular skill set or affinity.

If there’s a need for tutors, for example, in a certain community, you may need to have basic knowledge of teaching methods as well as competency on the subject matter.

MYTH: It’s obvious what the needs of the community will be before you get there.

To paraphrase a famous movie line, volunteering is “like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” And that’s the best part of the experience! Learning new things and meeting people from various walks of life can enrich your outlook. Even if you do your research on an organization beforehand, there is nothing like experiencing their mission first-hand. That’s where flexibility, ability to adapt to changing circumstances and roles and the willingness to try different things like microvolunteering come in. 

A side note: Be humble and modest. Know that you might not have the answers to people’s needs and that your ideas might not be the best solution. Listen and learn.

MYTH: You can only volunteer if you are a student or a fresh graduate.

Students and fresh graduates will certainly learn a lot when they volunteer, but they are not the only ones who can (and do) volunteer. Anyone can help. In fact, demographic millions of volunteers were baby boomers, veterans, Generation Xers.

As long as you’re willing to help, you can never be too old (or too young, for that matter) to volunteer. It’s all about finding the right organization you’re passionate about and where you can be of most help.

MYTH: You can’t afford to take the time off work.

Volunteering doesn’t have to happen during standard work hours or at the same time each week. You can offer your service on weekends or evenings. If you’re still working full-time or part-time, your employer may have hours allocated for giving back to the community. (Fun fact: volunteering actually makes you feel like you have more time in your day!)

MYTH: You don’t need to work hard because you are just there to help.

As Philip Stanhope said, “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” Volunteering for a good cause is awesome, but only if you’re committed and passionate. You’re not helping if you are unreliable or inconsistent in your service. So consider your time and length of commitment before embarking on your next volunteer adventure.

MYTH: You will change the world.

Doing your part in helping the world become a better place is admirable, but you have to be realistic and patient. You may not immediately see the results of your actions. Yet, your small contribution still ultimately impacts the big picture. And no matter what, by volunteering you’ll be able to help make at least one person’s life a little better. That’s a reward in itself!

 MYTH: You have to be selfless to volunteer.

When you enjoy helping good causes, you feel happier, healthier, and confident. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Improved mental and physical health are two great reasons to volunteer.

MYTH: Volunteering is dirty work no one will do. 

Sure, sometimes people paint school walls, clean up parks and plant gardens, but they also help make critical decisions as board members or grant reviewers. Professionals, like engineers, doctors, and scientists along with homemakers, PSW’s and office workers have skills to share.

MYTH: You have to be present to make a difference. 

Virtual volunteering—like online tutoring programs—connects people to organizations and their beneficiaries. United Way Worldwide has helped companies give their employees the ability to write a note of encouragement to students, veterans or other groups who need support.

In short…
If you’re feeling lonesome or depressed, volunteering can put you in touch with people in your community. Or if you’re eager to learn a new professional skill or flex an existing one by putting it into practice, skilled volunteering can help you do that. Whatever your reason, if your intentions are honest, you’ll make good things happen. 


Re-entering the workforce after a long break?

Before you start your job search, it’s important to have a clear goal and connections who will help you target both the industry and the role you’d like to work in.

Do your research: While you may think “taking just a few years off work” isn’t long, the job market can evolve in just a short period of time. Look to understand what types of roles companies are seeking to fill and what skills you’ll need to land those jobs. Spend a few hours a day researching the latest news trends in your selected industry—you’ll be amazed what you can find out online or from chatting with people who are already working there. 

Upgrade your education: Consider taking a few refresher classes or going as far as working towards a diploma or certificate. This will help you gain the skills and knowledge specific to the position you’re going after. Plus, highlighting your recent accomplishments on your resume may give you a competitive edge over other applicants.

Update your resume: Your time away might make you feel like you have nothing new to add to your resume, but many times that’s just not true. Try to think of any projects, experiences, volunteer work and, as mentioned, classes, or skills you have developed while away.

Part-time or temporary: The reality of re-entering the workforce is that you might have to make some compromises, especially in the beginning, to get your foot in the door and get recent experience on your new resume. Explore and be open to temporary, part-time, project or contract work.

Check your confidence: Getting back into the job market can be nerve-racking! However, work to approach this process with a positive attitude, confidence in yourself, and faith in your own abilities.

Craft your elevator pitch: Be ready to explain who you are, what you want and a quick summary of your key qualifications. State how you’ve progressed and improved during your time away.

Reach out: With 250 plus online applications in hand for each position, employers are looking for the shortest and safest route to finding a candidate. When you find a job you’d like, check LinkedIn to see who you might know at the company and request an informational interview. And, before you apply, try to find an advocate who will vouch for you and/or help you. If you don’t have any connections, find someone on the team who you have something in common with and reach out with a thoughtful cold email. 

Continue to support worthy causes: Retirement, even if it’s temporary, allows you the time to get behind the organizations and causes you are most passionate about. This will not only help you stay engaged, connected and active but will help you meet new people and stay mentally sharp while you’re hunting for a new position. 


Disabled during COVID-19

By Michelle Hewitt

We are living in strange and uncertain times. From a personal context, in many ways, my life continues just like before. I stayed at home most of the time, and from my wheelchair or my bed, I participated in many meetings and continued my studies. However, beyond the protective bubble of my home, life is very different.

COVID-19 has exposed many weaknesses of our medical systems worldwide, but I think that the cracks in our societal systems are even greater. The same systems that many of us relied on before this are now overwhelmed as everyone lives “our life.” Even the systems being put in place for “the elderly and the vulnerable” are being swamped by those who are neither elderly nor vulnerable. Those on low income cannot afford to pay for grocery delivery, those with restricted diets are struggling with the lottery of what food might be available, and our medication supply chains are overstretched by overfilling of prescriptions, protectionism from the countries with the raw ingredients for many of our drugs, and a US president that just bought 29 million pills of hydroxychloroquine on a whim, with no thought to the people who already use the drug and need it as part of their daily medication regime.

I could go on and on. No single country behaving like this—I see the same in Canada, the UK, the US, all over Europe, Australia. Every country seems to have its own video of people fighting in grocery stores over toilet paper. Collectively, we need to give our heads a shake. We need to do what’s right for people from a fundamental level. We need to care about people. We need to go to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, start from the bottom and work up.

I’ve been struck by the language I see being used. “The elderly and the vulnerable”—but who are the people behind these labels? In BC, where I live, 2 separate task forces have been struck by the provincial government—the COVID-19 Seniors Working Group and the Vulnerable Population Working Group. The senior’s group, with funds from the government, set up a 211 service for seniors to reach out if they need support getting groceries, medications, that kind of thing. It’s not available to disabled people under the age of 65, but it’s potentially available to everyone over 65 whether they need assistance or not. The vulnerable population group “is working to identify, assess and address the immediate challenges faced in particular by five groups—people living on the street, people experiencing homelessness living in encampments, shelter residents, tenants of private SROs and tenants in social and supportive housing buildings.”  ( This is the group that is also responsible for the issues faced by all disabled people. However, given the mandate to support the most complex and urgent societal issues imaginable, is that group even going to find the time to sort out, for example, groceries for disabled people under the age of 65—an issue that has already been solved by the Seniors group?!?

There are times that we resist labels as disabled people and times that we need them to access services, as annoying as that might be. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson offers a new term—misfit. She says we fit when we are in harmony with the environment we are situated in, and misfit when we do not, and, importantly, “[a]ny of us can fit here today and misfit there tomorrow.” Certainly, within our current situation, many people who were previously able to work, be out in the community, and still live safely while immune compromised, now find themselves misfitting, unable to go out of their own homes. I paused to consider this label of “vulnerable” that is now applied to disabled people, while reflecting on Garland-Thomson’s description of vulnerability—“a way to describe the potential for misfitting to which all human beings are subject.” I would argue that vulnerability is no longer potential. For all of us, that vulnerability is here, a constant presence, where a virus has created the fear of the unknown in everyone’s lives, and where my way of living has become the new normal. So, if this is the case, who are “the vulnerable?” How can this label provide any help to disabled people who had systems in place, but now find them gone? And how can it help those who were already living precarious lives—lives that have become even more precarious?

Right now, more than ever, we have no need for labels and we certainly shouldn’t be delivering services by label. The continued reliance on labels is exacerbating the cracks in our system, creating duplications and gaps, with access to services based on arbitrary categorization. Every time a service is offered to one group, another group is left out. I believe, or at least hope, that, as disabled people, we live in solidarity with each other and with other marginalized people. Now is not the time to pit us against each other. Now is the time to look at need, and to make sure that no-one is left out.

I wonder what “normal” life will be like, once a vaccine is found and COVID-19 fades into the background. Will those of us who had previously participated in life from home be forced to constantly explain the need for that “accommodation” again, or will it be the “new normal?” Will the label “vulnerable” continue? Will services that we needed all along, such as financial increases to provincial Disability Allowances, remain, or will they be clawed back? As an advocate, I feel a sense of opportunity, that maybe we can establish some practices that will stay with us past these current times, and that as a society we will finally see the needs of people, not labels.

Michelle Hewitt is a former disabilities studies student at Ryerson University.

Now hiring: What autistic people need to succeed in the workplace

Autistic adults have more job opportunities than they used to, and a small neurodiverse workforce is thriving — but mainly at select companies that invest heavily in such employees.

Adrienne Rutledge graduated from college with a biology degree. She went on to earn a master’s degree and then, in various short-lived and contract jobs, picked up programming and data processing, coveted skills in the marketplace. Still, she could not land a fulfilling full-time position. Rutledge is African American and has autism, and she had trouble making it past the interview stage.

When her contract job ended more than a year ago, she decided to boost her technical expertise and enrolled in a six-week data ‘boot camp’ with a nonprofit organization based in San Jose, California. She finally got a break when, in March 2019, she presented her project to an audience that included Hiren Shukla, who leads the accounting firm Ernst & Young’s Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence. Shukla was so impressed with Rutledge, he immediately invited her to apply for a position in the company.

The ‘interview’ for the job lasted a week and was different from all others Rutledge had experienced. She did not have to answer questions about her career goals or how she deals with conflict. Instead, she parsed Excel spreadsheets for patterns and designed a system to manage orders from customers. “They really gave us an opportunity to demonstrate what we could do,” she recalls.

In June, Rutledge became one of Ernst & Young’s 80 neurodiverse employees, 6 of them women and 6 people of color. (About three-quarters of the neurodiverse employees have autism; the rest have other psychiatric conditions or learning disabilities.) She spends her days writing code to extract information from databases and look for patterns in data — tasks she both excels at and enjoys.

Among those with autism, Rutledge is among a lucky few. Each year, about 100,000 autistic children in the United States turn 18, but just 58 percent of them will work for pay at some point before age 25, compared with 74 percent of young adults who have intellectual disability and nearly 99 percent of all high-school graduates, according to a 2015 report. “People with autism are more disconnected from employment than people with other disabilities,” though it is not clear why, says Anne Roux, research scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The media often trumpets job programs for people on the spectrum, but these numbers have hardly budged in the past few years. In fact, though, autistic people’s experiences at a few small companies suggest that with the right support and infrastructure, they excel at their jobs and may even outperform their neurotypical peers. Corporations such as Ernst & Young and the multinational software companies SAP and Microsoft are betting on this and investing heavily in an autistic workforce — together they employ about 300 people with autism. “People on the autism spectrum have multiple and varied skills to contribute to the workplace, and businesses can experience a strong return on investment by supporting greater diversity,” says Dianne Malley, who directs the Life Course Outcomes’ Transition Pathways initiative at Drexel University.

The U.S. government also offers services and support for autistic people aiming to enter the workforce. In 2014, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which requires that states spend 15 percent of their budget for job-training services on programs for people with disabilities. Some of the resulting programs have spun off experiments at universities that place autistic high-school students in internships. This focus on high-school students is key, experts say: 90 percent of students with autism who had worked for pay during high school held jobs in their early 20s, compared with only 40 percent of those who had not. “Paid employment while in high school is a strong indicator of good employment outcomes as an adult,” Malley says.

From 2009 to 2015, the number of young people with autism receiving these services across the U.S. doubled to 18,000, according to an analysis published last year. Still, only about half of these trainees found jobs, perhaps because the quality of services varies. Of the 51 state plans, only 10 included detailed goals and strategies to address the needs of autistic people. And most help comes to a halt after a person has held a job for 90 days, even though people with autism often need ongoing support to adjust to workplace changes or new responsibilities.

As these programs proliferate, the benefits may spill over to the economy. One 2017 analysis in Australia found that putting just 100 autistic individuals to work full-time for three years would generate nearly 3 million Australian dollars in tax benefits and save the country close to AU$4 million in welfare payments and services. In the U.S., 500,000 to 1 million young people with autism are expected to reach working age over the next decade, so the potential savings from effective programs are substantial. “Engaging more people on the autism spectrum in meaningful employment can have benefits for the individual, their families, businesses and our communities,” Malley says.

Out-of-the-box thinking:

Many reports emphasize economic and other benefits to autistic people and to society, but in fact, autistic employees often prove to be an asset to the corporations that hire them.

When David Siegal, a 33-year-old with autism, began working in SAP’s Global Post-Sales Operation department four years ago, his team ran into a problem: There was no good system for dealing with internal work-order requests, which simply piled up in his department’s email inbox. Siegal helped the team invent and put in place a ticket-based approach to process these requests in an orderly fashion. Neatly queued up, the requests became easy to visualize and track. “His curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking is amazing,” says his manager, Pamela Chance. “It has been highly beneficial to improving our processes.”

Siegal is not the only creative thinker at SAP. In the company’s office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, an autistic accounts-payable analyst, Nicolas Neumann, noted another inefficiency: the need to manually enter thousands of dollar amounts into SAP’s invoicing system and authorize the payments. Neumann taught himself to code and spent many nights building software to automate this process. When the team noticed he looked tired, he worked up the courage to tell them about his idea — and was given one day a week to develop it. The finished product cut the average time to process an invoice from several days to 20 minutes.

Ernst & Young’s autistic employees are also often employed in technology positions because many of them seem to excel at those, says Jamell Mitchell, who oversees their recruitment. For example, he says, one group of employees with autism who had been hired for support roles learned Python, a programming language, well enough in four weeks to build a working product for a client.

“People with autism are more disconnected from employment than people with other disabilities.” Anne Roux

Beyond their technical expertise, however, employees on the spectrum often require significant resources to succeed in their jobs. Some of these companies hire coaches to help autistic and neurotypical employees communicate, teaching each group how to interpret the other’s words and behavior. The coaches also teach autistic team members how to advocate for things they need, cope with setbacks and accept feedback. Each autistic employee also gets a ‘buddy,’ a neurotypical employee who is willing to explain procedures, remind the employee of meetings and answer questions.

Without such supports, people with autism often have a much harder time at the office. Thomas Iland, 36, is a certified public accountant. In 2012, he found a full-time accounting job at Tetra Tech in Pasadena, California. He found himself having to navigate many situations that were challenging for him. One day, he explained to his manager that he asks many questions because he has autism. Iland says his manager then accused him of hiding his condition during the interview — and refused to answer any more of Iland’s questions. Iland found a job coach on his own, but he says he still did not have enough support, and he left his job in early 2013.

Over the following two years, Iland worked as what he calls a “glorified receptionist” at a significantly lower salary than he had received before. He left that position in 2015 to work as a keynote speaker for the Council for Exceptional Children, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia. In January, he became a life and job coach for people with autism. He enjoys his work but says he wishes he had not needed to leave accounting.

For the companies that work to support the Ilands of the world, the investment pays off — and not just because of the infusion of talent. For example, Chance says that in adjusting to communicate with Siegal and other autistic employees who interpret language literally, she learned to speak clearly and precisely. “I became a better communicator,” she says. The companies also benefit from autistic employees’ loyalty: 90 percent of neurodiverse employees at Ernst & Young have stayed at the company, compared with its average of 75 percent of typical employees, for instance. SAP and Ernst & Young both plan to expand their ranks of neurodiverse hires. For the majority of autistic adults, however, the path to employment is more circuitous.

Students provide breakfast:

Ben Lewis graduated from a California high school in June 2015 determined to pursue a college degree. Although he eased into college in September with only three classes, one of which was jazz band, he soon felt alone and overwhelmed. He left the band after only two weeks — he found interacting with the other musicians too stressful — and by October, he had withdrawn from the other two classes. “I was fearful of a lot of things,” says Lewis, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3.

Lewis decided to enroll in Meristem, a school and community for people with autism in Fair Oaks, California, not far from his home. Spread across a pastoral 13 acres, Meristem includes a farm where students grow produce and take care of animals, dormitories and both indoor and outdoor classrooms. The school’s few dozen students take cooking classes from local chefs, pottery lessons from artisans and land stewardship courses from agriculturalists. They make herbal products such as lip balms and sell them in an onsite store and via a student-built website. They also run a bakery and a bed-and-breakfast. “This is the only bed-and-breakfast we know of that’s run entirely by students on the spectrum,” says Edmund Knighton, Meristem’s director. “Students provide breakfast; they cook and take care of this facility.”

The hands-on coursework is designed to build students’ self-esteem and give them experience working as a team. In their third year, students learn to live independently, taking care of their daily needs. Since the school’s launch in 2015, its student population has grown from 7 to 50. Some graduates go on to four-year colleges, and others land jobs — landscaping for the federal parks department or working in local clothing stores.

Lewis shed many of his anxieties at Meristem. He learned to speak in front of a class, something that had terrified him before. He began playing drums again in the campus music room. After he finished the program, he was hired to be the school’s farming instructor. He is once again considering college. “I don’t see reasons to leave what I do here,” he says, “but college is an open door.” Many students, including Lewis, qualify for partial tuition assistance, but Meristem’s path to independence is pricey: $55,000 a year for commuters and $85,000 for students who live on campus. “It’s definitely an obstacle for some,” Knighton says.

There are less expensive, if less comprehensive, options. Daivergent is a New York-based startup, founded by a pair of data scientists, that matches individuals’ skills to companies’ projects. One of the company’s clients was trying to develop an artificial-intelligence algorithm that recognizes a license plate on a car. To do this, the program had to scan millions of pictures of those plates, which needed to be identified as such. So, as a first step, someone had to draw a box around the license plate in every image. Most people find this task daunting, but some individuals on the spectrum aced the job. Daivergent has 20 corporate clients — one of which is SAP — and an employee pool of 1,200.

The autistic people who sign up for Daivergent’s services take an assessment to identify their strengths and preferred type of work, such as testing software, entering data or designing video games. They also can hone their skills by taking video-based classes such as programming and marketing. The company’s setup allows employees to set their own hours and work at their own pace — ideal for autistic people who need flexibility. “Most of these jobs can be done remotely,” says one of the co-founders, Byran Dai, a data scientist whose younger brother is on the spectrum.

Daivergent’s eight-person team also includes an autistic person, Leon Campbell, who has a computer science degree from Hunter College in New York City. As a student, Campbell worried about being unable to handle the pressures of a full-time job after graduation. He joined Daivergent in 2018 as an intern while finishing his degree, and he worked on projects involving data processing and software testing. After he graduated, Daivergent hired him. He began as a half-time employee, and later became full time. These days, Campbell trains job candidates, reviews their work before it is sent to clients and is the main point of contact for customer questions and feedback. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, he says, he likes the structure — or, as he puts it, “the fact that I have something to do for seven hours of my day rather than staying at home.”

Another organization, the Florida-based Dan Marino Foundation, picks up other pieces of the employment puzzle for people on the spectrum. Its latest offering is a virtual-reality version of its interview software. To use the program, called Magically, autistic people don 3D goggles and ‘enter’ an office where they confront one avatar after another, each of which peppers them with tough questions about their qualifications. With the goggles in tow, applicants can rehearse their technique whenever and wherever they would like. “If I am [an autistic person] having an interview in two hours, I can have a couple of sessions to practice,” says Santiago Bolivar, the foundation’s creative director.

In demand:

Several universities have developed pilot programs that prepare students with autism for the workforce and serve as models for larger initiatives. In 2017, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond recruited 81 autistic students with intellectual disability in their last year of high school to work in jobs at four hospitals — stocking supplies, sterilizing instruments, scanning documents and even cleaning. With few marketable skills, these young people needed a bridge to employment. A teacher and a teaching assistant from the school district taught the students how to do their jobs as well and how to communicate with others about their tasks. A job coach showed them how to interact professionally with their supervisors and coworkers, and how to accept feedback without getting upset.

A year later, more than 70 percent of the students were working about 20 hours a week, earning more than minimum wage, on average. By comparison, only 17 percent of a control group of autistic high-school graduates had a job. The results confirmed those of a similar, but smaller, pilot study that began in 2009. “The outcomes were terrific,” says study investigator Paul Wehman, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the university.

The students with autism performed well at tasks many neurotypical people would find taxing. One employee checked medications for expiration dates in a fraction of the typical time. Another excelled at stocking supplies because he had a photographic memory. “My eyes would be strained from looking at the numbers,” says Jennifer McDonough, who directed the job coaches. But this employee, she recalls, “knew where supplies went just from a quick scan of the room.” The autistic employees all proved so valuable that soon other hospitals wanted them, too. “We had hospitals arguing over who was going to participate,” McDonough says.

“The majority of autistic people, with the right supports and high expectations, can work like the rest of the population.” Dianne Malley

Researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia took a similar approach to helping autistic young people find jobs. They provided internships to eight local autistic high-school students who have intellectual disability. The students learned to take public transportation to the campus, where they learned skills such as data entry or filling web orders at a bookstore. For four of the students, these internships led to full-time jobs. These students went on to work in similar capacities at the Philadelphia airport, and all are still employed three years later. More than a dozen autistic students without intellectual disability who trained in a separate Drexel program landed paid internships at the Penn Museum, according to Malley. Another 8 students are in training, and Malley expects to expand the program to 15 students next year.

Some states support or try to reproduce components of these experiments. The Penn Museum internships were funded through the state of Pennsylvania. And the state of Virginia pays for behavioral specialists to support adults with autism who are seeking employment so that these individuals have help troubleshooting problems once they get a job. “This has proven very beneficial, in our experience,” McDonough says. Other states train on-the-job counselors to work specifically with people who have autism as opposed to other disabilities.

But to make a significant dent in the unemployment rate for people with autism, states need to establish large collaborative programs involving schools, vocational rehabilitation services, counselors and local businesses, Malley says. And business owners need to be educated on why it is cost-efficient to hire people with autism. (One reason: Autistic people often hold entry-level retail positions for longer than neurotypical people do, providing a stable set of employees in those jobs.)

Along with this practical progress, society needs to raise its expectations for individuals on the spectrum. “What we’ve done for years was to say, ‘Yes, of course they need a job; a job is so valuable to people.’ So we’d employ them two hours on Tuesday and two hours on Thursday,” Malley says. For some, this may be the limit, but for others, that bar is too low, she says: “The majority of [autistic] people, with the right supports and high expectations, can work like the rest of the population.”

In some cases, they can do so with astounding success. A few months ago, Rutledge and her team were tasked with rebuilding a computer system that their managers use to keep track of projects. The rebuild would typically take a month or more, Rutledge says, but this upgrade had to be done in just a few days. “We sequestered ourselves in a conference room and worked nonstop,” she says. The team not only made the deadline but did so without interrupting access to the system. Rutledge credits the achievement to “really smart,” collaborative colleagues who are similar to her: “That’s what I found here.”

Originally published on Spectrum

Spectrum logo