Autism Awareness Month: The job force

Dennis A. Brown II

(Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series. Published during Autism Awareness Month, the series focuses on how serious the strain of autism can be because it can lead to some serious or tragic consequences. Part 3 addresses abuses in the workplace of adults in the Autism Spectrum Disorder.)

By DENNIS A. BROWN II

Before my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, I worked in radio broadcasting. An article from the Sept. 24, 2016, edition of The Washington Post titled “You’re autistic. You know you can do a good job, but will employers listen?” by Abigail Adams included a story of Gloria Mendoza of Newtown Square, Pa., who has a form of autism and has had trouble finding work. Her qualifications include degrees in computer science and music.

I e-mailed Autism Speaks’ Adult Services Director David Kearon about my problems. He says people with autism who have trouble finding good paying jobs is a problem in the United States. About 50,000 people with autism enter adulthood annually with the majority of them being unemployed despite advocacy assistance and increased awareness. A 2014 report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute states that 58 percent of high school students with autism had a plan for entering adulthood.

In February 2012, I recorded a 10-second voice-over project for three one-minute videos for Autism Speaks. One video featured Michael Mignemi who has a form of autism. Michael was an intern at Lifestyles for the Disabled, an organization in Staten Island, N.Y., that helps special needs people learn job skills to prepare for the job force. He also hosted a weekly radio show. He says people with special needs should be given equal opportunities, have a different pace of performing the tasks, and need extra support.

About every job application asks if the applicant needs special accommodations. Those in the Autism Spectrum Disorder should qualify. In 2011 Jason O’Dell, who has Asperger’s, went through Randstad U.S.A. in Frederick, Md., to find work as a lab technician. He was rejected after revealing his disability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on his behalf saying that Randstad violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against qualified applicants with a disability. O’Dell was paid $60,000 and Randstad was required to change its statements regarding anti-discrimination, harassment, and accommodation policies.

Employers are responsible for the safety of their employees and can be subjected to civil liability for failing to provide a safe environment, which includes being protected from bullying and harassment. A 2013 survey from disability-abuse.com states that 28.8 percent of workers with autism were bullied while 55.4 percent actually reported it. Here are two examples of employees afflicted by Asperger’s Syndrome who experienced workplace bullying:

Michael Bistreich was working for NYC Democratic Council member Vincent Gentile and Chief of Staff John Mancuso from February 2014 to June 2016 when he was allegedly exposed to acts of bullying which included his collections of stuffed animals being mutilated and his condition being insulted. It was also alleged that Bistreich was locked in a basement for several hours. Bistreich received a pay increase and a promotion, but they were rescinded. Six months after resigning, Bistreich filed a $10 million lawsuit against Gentile and the city.

David Case was a bookkeeper and accounting clerk for London Meats (later becoming London Manhattan), a meat fabricating and distribution company in New York City, for over 20 years. In 2004 Case was exposed to acts of bullying that included being tied up in wrapping material, gel in his hair, and being shown pornography. Case was terminated after he complained about it. The EEOC filed a lawsuit on Case’s behalf in 2007. Nine months later, Case was paid $70,000 and London Manhattan had to take steps in preventing discrimination and harassment.

People with autism shouldn’t be confined to being unemployed or having low-skilled and low-paying jobs. If they have the skills to perform the tasks, they should be given every opportunity to prove it even if they openly reveal their disability. Employers need to hire managers and supervisors who are willing to work with employees with autism. Managers and supervisors should speak to employees with autism in plain English slowly and carefully and should protect them from bullying and harassment.

(Dennis A. Brown II is originally from Louisville, Ky., and currently lives in Dearborn. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in February 2007 at age 35. He’s a former radio broadcaster and currently works for a private security company. In addition to writing commentaries, he records public service announcements about autism awareness for non-commercial radio stations based in metropolitan Detroit area schools.)