As usual, it was a lively conversation, which is one of the reasons I always try to get up there when asked -- I learn so much, too!
Here's a breakdown of the challenges/topics that need to be addressed:
- Poor definitions -- what is autism? This is a big issue, where for better or worse we have moved from media portraying autism as savants (Rain Main) to geniuses with less-than-perfect social skills (Big Bang Theory, Atypical, The Good Doctor). Those of us working in the field tend to use clunky definitions such as 'high functioning', 'moderately-impaired' and other ill-fitting and demeaning terms. The truth is, some folks on the Spectrum are indeed geniuses in some areas, and really struggle in others. Some struggle across 'functional domains' (skills society deems as necessary to partake in mainstream life). Some autistic people will earn advanced degrees and go on to have fabulous careers with little problem 'passing' as neurotypical. Others may require sheltered employment with hand-over-hand instruction to succeed vocationally. Autism is a poor definition as a whole, and the 'sub-type' definitions we use are not accurate. This is an important aspect to this challenge,because just as someone without the ability to add and subtract would make a poor accountant, not every job will be a good fit for every person on the Spectrum.
- Not all CompSci -- think bigger. This brings me to the second challenge. There is a huge misconception that everyone on the Spectrum, certainly all of the 'high functioning' folks, are a perfect fit for computer science, networking, and programming jobs. Again, this is just wrong. For every autistic person who comes in trying to get into programming, I have another client coming in for graphic design, teaching, writing, and so on. We need to be wary of any program that sells itself as 'the fix' for this challenge through training and recruiting only for CompSci jobs. These are people with a wide array of interests and talents, not trainable code monkeys.
- Silicon Valley doesn't get it -- Not Invented Here syndrome.The only major company who has really made a significant investment into hiring autistic employees is SAP. There are initiatives underway at Microsoft, Cisco, Google, LinkedIn, Uber, SalesForce, and other companies, but they are not interested (from what we can see) in working with other companies or workforce specialists in the Silicon Valley area. They want their own homegrown program, presumably so that they can enjoy the laurels of their work as proof to just how evolved they are in tackling this challenge. As a former high tech worker, this is the functional equivalent of everyone developing their own operating systems. We need to think Unix here. We (and others like us) have the infrastructure, the materials, the knowledge base, the connections,the hard-earned wisdom that can help these and other companies develop programs that work for THEM. Just like Unix as a platform, we need companies to see US as platforms from which to build their own programs.
- Department of Rehabilitation, Department of Education, and EDD are all VERY late to the game. There is a good reason why parents such as myself are doing this work -- there are no systems in place to deal with these challenges, and we're not going to wait around for our government agencies to get with it. We'll led, hope they follow, and if not, we'll figure it out on our own. But it sure would be nice if these agencies helped us and companies fund this work so that we can make a bigger impact for more people.
- Colleges don't get it -- Skills not Degrees. Another very broken aspect of the equation is that college students are graduating without marketable skills. The world is very different now than when I was a fresh graduate -- smart people don't get hired. People with demonstrated skills get hired. We need to make sure that every person who invests in college -- on or off the Spectrum -- knows what will be needed to get a job, and then get those skills as part of his or her education. Further, tech jobs in particular mean ongoing education just to keep up. No one rests on his or her educational laurels any more, and we need to accommodate for that.