A photo of a precious moment between a shopping mall Santa Claus and a young man on the autism spectrum captured the hearts of millions in late 2015. The photo shows Santa sitting on the floor playing with Brayden, an autistic child who loved Santa, but was uncomfortable with the usual “sitting on Santa’s lap” visit. This special Santa was part of the mall’s Caring Santa event, a program designed to provide children with autism and other special needs the chance to do what all kids do—tell Santa what they want for the holidays—in a sensory-friendly way.
More and more businesses are adapting to the needs of those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), not only welcoming them as customers but also as employees. And, it’s a win-win for both sides.
Retail giant Target has always been at the forefront in its commitment to people with all types of disabilities. Those with disabilities have appeared in their advertising for decades. The company has, in most of its locations, added Caroline’s Carts, which are shopping carts specifically designed to accommodate disabled adults and older children.
The Lancaster, Pennsylvania, location went even further during the 2016 holiday shopping season. The company held a two-hour sensory-friendly event for families with children on the spectrum. The dimly lit, music-free event, with reduced staff to keep human interaction at a minimum, was a huge success for the children and their families.
Target wasn’t the only retailer to host such shopping events. Toys R Us and JC Penney were also among the businesses that made it easier for those on the spectrum and their families to shop during holidays and the back-to-school season. One holiday event at a Toys R Us in Pennsylvania included members of the Autism Society who were available to answer questions and hand out informational pamphlets.
Several UK Tesco grocery stores are delving into the arena as well. Earlier this year, a Crawley, England, location ran a six-week trial of once-a-week “quiet hour” shopping. A Scotland location recently announced it will hold a weekly quiet hour shopping time as well.
Fun and Entertainment Without Sensory Overload
Increasingly, businesses that entertain and amuse are creating opportunities for those on the spectrum, allowing them to have fun on their own terms. For example, a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Ferris wheel, known as SkyWheel, recently added special events to accommodate those with autism. Instead of restricting the number of times a person can ride, parents and their children may ride as many times and as long as they want.
AMC Theatres has had a programme of “sensory-friendly films” since 2008. Now encompassing 175 of the chain’s locations, special events are held throughout the week where sound levels are reduced and lights remain on. Filmgoers are free to roam around the theater at will.
Becky Large is the executive director of the Champion Autism Network, a nonprofit advocacy group based in South Carolina. Large explains the reason such programs are so important for families with children on the spectrum, “It’s all about trying to have families have a normal family experience, whether that’s grocery shopping, a meal at a restaurant, or a movie. That would be wonderful.”
ASD and Business: The Changing Dynamic of Company Hiring Practices
A 2015 unemployment rate estimate for those on the spectrum was a staggering 90 per cent. Jobs are desperately needed but many employers are hesitant to hire people they think may be difficult or not fit in. However, with the help of advocacy groups, entrepreneurs and families, that’s beginning to change. In fact, more and more, employers are seeking out the distinct abilities and qualifications many on the spectrum have to offer.
Of course, individual talents and skills vary. But many on the autism spectrum have excellent visual perception, can focus intently, and can find solutions when placed in the right environment. Many jobs require just that skill set. A number of large and small businesses have stepped up to not only employ those with ASD, but recruit them as well. So, who’s stepping up? What can other business owners learn from them?
Tech giant Microsoft actively recruits those on the spectrum. Tech is an industry where many with ASD excel. Coding is typically a solo endeavor and coders have to be highly focused, both of which are attributes that often come naturally for the autistic. One of the company’s first hires since launching its hiring program was Kyle Schwaneke. Schwaneke had graduated with a degree in computer interactive technologies and worked as a game developer for an independent game studio. When the studio closed its doors, Schwaneke found himself, even though he was highly skilled, unemployed. He’d been applying for jobs and thought he’d have to move back in with his parents. The Microsoft program came at exactly the right time for him.
Microsoft actively seeks candidates for a variety of specific jobs which, at any given time, include program managers, software engineers, data scientists and service engineers.
The Chicago-based drugstore has been a pioneer in bringing those with autism and other disabilities into the company as distribution center employees. The pilot program at a single distribution center in 2007 was so successful—the facility became Walgreen’s most productive and is such a model of efficiency that 200 other companies have visited to learn more—the company expanded the programme to encompass distribution centers in other locations.
Small Business Steps Up
It’s not just large corporations stepping up. In fact, much of the positive work is being done by small businesses themselves as well as small business coalitions. Here are two amazing examples of local businesses and employment opportunities for those with ASD:
- The Rising Tide Car Wash: Parkland, Florida, is home to a car wash with a staff of 35 autistic employees. Company chief operating officer Tom D’Eri views autism as a competitive advantage, saying that “There are really important skills that people with autism have that make them, in some cases, the best employees you could have.”
- Extraordinary Ventures: Founded by a coalition of social entrepreneurs, Extraordinary Ventures (EV) bucked the trend of training autistic employees to do a job a specific way and, instead, designed jobs and work environments to fit the needs and skills of its workers. Current services the business offers include a local laundry, pet walking and office services as well as an online gift store.