Embracing Neurodiversity in the Skilled Trades | Organization for Autism Research

Perspective

“Help Wanted” signs seem to be commonplace these days. According to news and business reports, employers across the country are struggling to find workers, and many workforce experts state there are more jobs than available workers. Some equate this to high unemployment benefits or low wages. However, many employers are offering comfortable living wages, especially in the skilled trades, and still coming up short.

Yet, 90% of people with autism are unemployed or underemployed. The current government systems that support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to find employment are riddled with obstacles that make it difficult for those individuals to use their services as well as for employment-minded nonprofits and businesses to hire them. For example, TACT, my nonprofit organization, was originally turned away from federal vocational funding because we used the word “education” instead of “training.”

Furthermore, misunderstanding of benefits, deficit-based community programs, lack of equal opportunity for training, and fundamental misunderstanding of what autism is have left many organizations across the country without the tools to place individuals into careers. For example, government, state, and school district funding for families is based upon a few assessments that don’t take into account things like executive functioning, frustration tolerance, and adaptability, and as a result, these funding programs deny support to many who need it.

Additionally, the fundamental philosophy of vocational programs for people with disabilities has been that they would learn on the job through internships, sub-minimum wages, and piecemeal work. But if they don’t have the necessary training, they can’t do the work to the level that makes employers want to hire them. With very few exceptions, these methods do not work. But change is happening and ideas are flowing.

 

A New Openness in the Workplace

The skilled trade industry as a whole saw a double to triple market growth over the course of the pandemic, and many of the newly available jobs are perfectly suited for our neurodivergent community, such as, for example, jobs prefabricating and pre-wiring junction boxes, outlets, circuits, and more. All of these skilled trade jobs take place in a warehouse with a controlled environment and make use of detailed and color-coded blueprints with a team delegated for each project. For open-minded employers and companies seeking truly talented workers, this is an opportunity.

That’s where Teaching the Autism Community Trades (TACT), the first and only skilled trades program for autistic individuals in the United States, comes in. TACT is an asset-based program that builds upon the strengths of autistic individuals by providing them with customized training in the skilled trades in a holistic manner and assisting them in creating a skills portfolio and finding a job. We do this by simulating the realities of a skilled trades workplace. When problems arise, employees with multiple skill sets and from various disciplines work together to solve them. Those simulated situations, which are appropriate to the jobs they will hold after they graduate, give our clients the experience and tools they will need to succeed. Employers are happy because they are getting employees who know what they are doing and how to do it.

TACT began in 2016 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. When I saw that my son had a natural affinity for conceptualizing and visualizing how to make and repair things, I recognized my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, all of whom worked in the skilled trades. But when I started looking for programs that could support my son, I couldn’t find any. While his schools and teachers meant well, they were failing him. Making use of my master’s degree in education, I took the idea I had for TACT and made it a reality. When I ran the blueprint for TACT past Dr. Temple Grandin and she told me to get it off the ground, I did just that.

Put simply, TACT recognizes the abilities of our students and gives them the tools they need to succeed. And they excel. Companies have taken note of the amazing work our students do. In fact, TACT has developed partnerships with companies like Advance Auto Parts, Weifield Contracting Group, Sturgeon Electric, Omnidian, and Bluestar Recyclers, to name a few. Autistic individuals offer these organizations many benefits, including loyalty, talent, resourcefulness, creativity, honesty, humor, and dependability. Thanks to these partners and TACT, our graduates are doing amazing things like wiring Amazon.com facilities, working on massive infrastructure lighting projects throughout Denver, recycling computers, replacing airbags in luxury cars, helping with solar panel systems, and more.

In return, these organizations offer our clients a career, not just a job. They offer benefits like retirement, health insurance, union voting rights, licenses, and all the other perks neurotypical employees have that most autistic individuals have not been able to access.

North Carolina-based Advance Auto Parts is piloting a brilliant program in Denver, Colo., with TACT as well as other organizations throughout the state like Easter Seals Colorado. By recognizing that autistic individuals have an amazing attention to detail, follow the rules and sequences to complete a variety of tasks, and are super reliable, Advance Auto has created a hiring pathway that is changing the lives of hundreds of people. Cynthia Graham, Senior Manager, Diversity Equity & Inclusion, says, “At Advance Auto Parts, we know that hiring people with different abilities is a way to attract great talent, and it’s very much in line with our focus on building a diverse and inclusive workplace. Across the country, there are so many people with different abilities who are ready and able to work, and these individuals have so much to offer potential employers.”

In 2020, TACT was recognized nationally on Mike Rowe’s Emmy-winning show, “Returning the Favor.” TACT’s model — providing tools and training, coaching on the job, and job placement with employers who value talented neurodivergent thinkers — is chipping away at the misconceptions and stereotypes that prevailed in the past about autistic individuals. Happily, TACT is not the only organization doing this kind of work. We have seen other organizations developing outstanding programs that showcase, promote, and build upon an individual’s abilities. Employers are joining us in recognizing the abilities of this previously untapped talent pool, including big companies like Google, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and NASA, all of which have programs hiring autistic individuals for their out-of-the-box thinking, strengths, and talents.

That’s the light of a bright future we at TACT can see at the end of what has been a very long and dark tunnel. Our goal is to take down as many “Help Wanted” signs as possible and fill those positions with autistic individuals. Our kids are beginning to be recognized for their abilities and the playing field is beginning to level. Employers, for their part, are learning what they’ve missed out on this whole time and are striving to achieve a neurodiverse workplace. As a dad, I’m proud of what we’re doing at TACT and feel like we’re setting the example and making a difference. Cheers to the future and here’s hoping for the best.


Danny CombsDanny Combs is a fourth-generation woodworker and mechanical tinkerer who grew up making “stuff” with his family. Eventually, he decided to follow his own path and went to Nashville to play music. His vibrant career included various platinum albums with Grammy and Oscar-winning recording artists. He was granted several awards in teaching – including a Grammy Enterprise Award for a program he designed in the Nashville schools. He gave up his music career to start TACT when his son, Dylan, was diagnosed with autism. He has a master’s degree in education, is a board-certified cognitive specialist, and a certified autism specialist.


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