Tapping into the Potential of Adults Living with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Introduction by Judy Young, Director of Training and Development at ILR School of Cornell University 

I have had the privilege in the past few years to contribute an article related to the employment of individuals with disabilities to this publication. I was just about to begin crafting this article when I met one of the participants in our school’s Diversity and Inclusion public workshop series who told me about a special initiative that her organization, PPL Corporation, has undertaken. We often hear about established, long-running programs but rarely have the opportunity to learn how these might be launched. So here is a story that provides one model for introducing potential employees with disabilities to the work place.  

By Dana Burns, Manager of Corporate Communications at PPL Corporation

For businesses today, it’s vitally important to recruit people from all walks of life, including those with disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is well-understood that a diverse workforce leads to more engaged employees, greater innovation, and improved business outcomes.

More than 3.5 million Americans are reportedly living with ASD, an often misunderstood disability. While research suggests that 60 percent of people with autism have average or higher cognitive abilities, it is still hard for these individuals to find – and keep – meaningful employment. A staggering 80 percent of college-educated adults with autism remain underemployed or unemployed.

Industries such as utilities, healthcare, and technology are facing a shrinking well of skilled workers, and adults with autism offer sought-after skills in a grossly untapped talent pool.
 Maciolek Small supports the notion that a more diverse workforce fosters innovative, successful business outcomes.
Kristine Maciolek Small, director of Inclusion and Diversity at PPL Corporation, is exploring ways to provide vibrant careers to those with disabilities, and is especially interested in tapping into the talent pool of adults with ASD. Maciolek Small supports the notion that a more diverse workforce fosters innovative, successful business outcomes. 

“Individuals with autism bring unique characteristics to a team,” Maciolek Small said. “They may look at life through a different lens, bringing a fresh perspective, or excel at finding new algorithms to solve complex issues. They can exceed performance expectations in many roles – but they need to know what opportunities are out there, and employers need to know how to support them.” 

This year, PPL launched a “day in the life” career initiative that provides an opportunity for college students with ASD to learn about jobs and interact with employees in a safe environment. To launch the project, PPL partnered with local universities and colleges that already provide enhanced support services to students on the autism spectrum. 

For help executing the day-long event, PPL looked internally to REACH, its employee-led business resource group that focuses on identifying the needs of differently-abled employees and providing resources to improve the effectiveness and well-being of those employees, their friends, families, and the communities.

The first event was held in March. The company hosted 12 Kutztown University students with ASD and five faculty members to show them life at PPL beyond the poles and wires. 

Highlights of the event included a panel discussion with PPL employees, a drone overview, a virtual reality substation demonstration, and a tour of the distribution and transmission control centers. The students engaged with PPL employees during the panel discussion, asking questions about the company and the REACH business resource group. 

PPL is using the event as a model for future engagements to help recruit people who identify as having a disability.

Overcoming Challenges

PPL had a vision to work alongside the community of people with autism to identify ways they could thrive in their careers and provide meaningful employment – but knowing where to start was the biggest challenge. Maciolek Small knew the company was culturally ready for this next step. 

“PPL has a robust and active disability business resource group,” she said. “We have senior leaders who self-identify as having disabilities. Not one leader questioned why we needed to do this – it was just accepted and supported.”

Tapping into already-established disability recruiting resources turned out to be the ideal launch pad. Universities and colleges that have existing autism support groups for students were a natural fit. 

“They are looking to help develop students with ASD and provide real-life opportunities to help them adapt to the workforce, and we are looking to grow our pipeline of talent. It’s really a positive step in the right direction for everyone,” said Maciolek Small. 
 
Another challenge the company faced was being prepared to host a group with ASD. 

“People with ASD have different sensitivities than others. We had to consider things like lighting and foot traffic in and out of the locations we were visiting,” said Maciolek Small.

To be prepared and ensure that the event was beneficial for the students, PPL consulted with Via of the Lehigh Valley, a non-profit agency that provides services for children and adults with disabilities to help them reach their full potential. Working with their clinical director for autism, PPL developed a better understanding of how best to interact with individuals with ASD.

Looking Ahead
 
With the successful completion of this first autism-focused career event, PPL is looking ahead and keeping its eye on intentionally working with people with ASD as a way to add value to its workforce.  

“This is not a campaign targeting just awareness; our intent is to turn this program into careers,” said Maciolek Small. “We will also look to expand the program to include the full lifecycle of talent acquisition and management, including interviewing, training, hiring, and advancing people with autism in the workplace.” 

PPL understands the challenge ahead of them and is ready to tackle it. Maciolek Small said she understands there is a lot to consider when recruiting and hiring employees with ASD, but giving them a seat at the table is the first step.