Celebrating Success In Becoming An Autism Friendly Community | WGLT

Celebrating Success In Becoming An Autism Friendly Community

Apr 28, 2016

Autism Friendly Community logo developed by Autism McLean and MarcFirst
Credit Autism McLean

It’s hard to get a job when you are autistic. It’s hard to socialize. It’s hard to do many things. Area advocates hope to create more autism friendly places in Bloomington Normal.

It used to be that somewhere around one person in every 65 in the U.S. fell on the autism spectrum. But, Kari Sandhaas with the advocacy group Autism McLean said the numbers have shifted either because diagnosis is better, or it’s happening more frequently.

"Current CDC statistics tell us that one in 45 young people are on the autism spectrum," said Sandhaas

That means about 3,900 people in McLean County are autistic. Brian Pihl is one of them.

"We want to work, we want to be included in the community. We want to have that kind of lifestyle," said Pihl.

Pihl said people on the spectrum need the same things people without that disability need, social outlets and places to recreate, things to do, and work. 

Autism McLean and MarcFirst, a group that serves those with disabilities are working together to show businesses and people that it’s not as hard as you might think to include people on the spectrum in a workforce or a public place.

Pihl works in the laundry room at the the Marriott Hotel in Uptown. He said many people like him can succeed in the work place, they just need a little assist.

"The job coaching, the check-ins. That's predominantly the services I receive. I will let the job coach know of anything, whether it's a duty change, a personnel change, oh new equipment, yes," said Pihl.

There are reasons people with autism make good workers. Marriott General Manager Jeff Pritts said his business averages 50 to 100 percent turnover per year, making training a tough and ongoing issue.

“You really look at the idea of the length of tenure that we’ve had here. I couldn’t tell you Brian, have you ever missed a day of work? If I could say that for every associate here, I can only imagine the benefits the economic benefits I have as a hotelier. Its been one of our success stories at the hotel here,” said Pritts.

The accommodations a person with autism needs are not always complicated. Kari Sandhaas of Autism McLean says they just have to be tailored to the individual.

"It could be as simple as finding a quiet room for someone, meeting one on one, letting them wear noise blocking headphones because of sensory sensitivities and things like that,” she said. 

Autism is a hidden disability. Marty Murphy said she runs into that all the time.

"I’ve had people say to me, you don’t look autistic. You don't act autistic. No, I can’t count matches or toothpicks when you drop them. I don’t sit in the corner and spin plates," said Murphy. "I’m very thorough. I’m very specific. There are sensory issues. I have sensitivity to high sound."

Murphy chews on things at work, just something to have in her mouth that looks like a sucker to keep her focused.

"I sit on a ball. Sitting on the ball, there was actually a clause that I couldn’t hop too far on the ball, sort of a butt clause. Can’t have too much air between your butt and ball, cause you know you get on those things and it’s kind of like a hippity hop," Murphy said.

Other accommodations can be very slight; weighted gloves, weighted vests, something like dark glasses to keep out fluorescent lights that hurt the eyes, Murphy said.

The Marriott’s Jeff Pritts said the job coaches provided by MarcFirst help create the fit between worker and workplace.

"Sometimes we see job coaches only when there is a major change. We’ve changed up their equipment or we’ve changed to a new product or a new routine. In others we have a job coach every single day. They’re on the lower end of the spectrum and they need assistance to execute their job the entire day,” Pritts said.

Some of the longest tenured Marriott associates are people with Autism, according to Pritts. And it’s not a disruption of the workplace culture to create a friendly workplace. He says you make it part of the training for everyone, and it becomes cultural.

"From the moment we hire we talk about working in a very diverse workforce and diverse workforce means more than just race or background, it’s the different folks that work for us.  So we have been extremely successful here. We have never had a single issue with any of our job coaches or the folks that need assistance to work here," said Pritts.

That is not to say the job always works. Pritts said a Bellman had trouble with train sounds and then the job description came to include driving. After several transfers that person left. But, he says it does work out with many people.

"We have folks with job coaches that work in banquets, restaurants, coffee shop, laundry, housekeeping, all of those so we can definitely keep it open to a wide variety," said Pritts.

One of the steepest barriers for someone on the spectrum is getting through the interview process. Mike Matejka of Autism McLean, who is married to Sandhaas, said that's even though people on the spectrum often have college degrees, and variety of skills and qualifications.

"They don’t always have the social skill to go through a very friendly kind of interview process because they need accommodation,"  said Matejka

MarcFirst said nationally 20 percent of people with disabilities are employed, in Illinois that’s ten percent. Part of the reason for that low number is the traditional interview format for job applicants.

On line applications can help. But, Kari Sandhaas says Country Financial in Bloomington also has a program that provides internships to those with disabilities which gives them time to prove what they can do.

"They don’t have to go through the usual process of an interview. In that win-win situation, the employer can see exactly what that individual can do and the individual can get, you know, acclimated to the job and would have a job coach to help them get acclimated. And at the end of the internship if they want to hire them, often that’s the case," said Sandhaas.

Social acceptance is also important. Space for discussion and doing things together where they will be accepted, according to Marty Murphy.

“Before I started working with autism McLean, I spent an awful lot of time in my room," said Murphy.

Murphy said a lot remains to be done. But, there are now opportunities. LA Fitness, she said, is autism friendly. Occasionally there are youth leagues and other outlets.

“The Normal Community Library has begun an autism café which is an excellent place to socialize,” Murphy said.

The Kiwanis Club in Bloomington Normal also has an action club which is an autism social group.

Jacquie Mace, the President of Autism McLean said they do things like rent a banquet room or the Children’s Discovery Museum to provide a safe space outlet.

"AMC actually did sensory friendly movies for children and their families. So lights turned up a little bit so it’s not so dark, sound not quite so loud," Mace said.

Other groups such as Easter Seals do autism based vacation bible school, sports camps for those with disabilities, respite nights, and other structured activities

State representative Dan Brady has a son who is on the spectrum. He said this Autism Friendly Community effort by Autism McLean and MarcFirst is very important because of the limits of official life.

“When I’m on committees and parents are testifying and we’re looking for dollars for everything, autism research, the list goes on, we can’t be everything to all people with some of the challenges we face. So when that happens, you have great people, great businesses, great organizations that step to the plate to make a difference," Brady said.

Autism McLean says anymore it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t know someone on the autism spectrum. They hope that after this campaign, when you meet someone with autism, you’ll know enough to smile and be friendly.