NEW YORK — When Joseph Leogrande, 18, rides the subway, his caretaker reminds him to be aware of his body and space, not to stand too close to people. Sometimes it’s hard for Leogrande to concentrate on these directives — his mind is elsewhere. He likes to move to the front of the train and peer into the cab, where the driver sits. “I want to see how everything works,” he said.
Since Leogrande was a kid, he’s collected extension cords and traffic signals from the MTA. He likes to take old things and make them work again, like a broken old-fashioned touch-tone phone he recently fixed.
“It had no phone cord,” said the curious young man, who is on the autism spectrum. “I had to wire one, and I had to program it. It took a little time to figure out the contacts, but in the end I figured out the proper screws and I got it working.”
Leogrande said he isn’t sure what he’ll do professionally, but he wants to work with technology: computer programming or maybe electrical wiring. He knows he’s capable, but those around him worry it might be hard for him to find a good job. Their fear is not unfounded. Advocates for those with autism estimate that up to nine out of 10 adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed.
But a growing group of educators see technology work as an ideal field for some adults with autism and hope that tech can provide a career path and a means to financial security. At the same time, employers are beginning to see advantages to hiring people with autism, many of whom have strengths that lend themselves to working well with technology, such as being able to stay focused for long periods of time and to perform repetitive tasks with accuracy. Some critics, however, say this push could pigeonhole people with autism, focusing them too much on one interest while ignoring other potential career fields.
“It’s not a pretty picture at the moment,” said David Kearon, director of adult services at Autism Speaks. “People with autism are quite capable of lots of different types of work, but they’re not given the opportunities.”
Over the last 40 years, the decline in manufacturing jobs and increase in service jobs, which usually require social interactions, has made employment more challenging for a population that tends to struggle with social etiquette and has had few options outside of low-wage labor jobs.
But things are starting to change. This year Microsoft launched a pilot program to hire adults with autism. SAP Software & Solutions announced that by 2020 it plans to hire 650 autistic employees, one percent of its workforce — nearly the same proportion of people with autism in the general U.S. population. And others are following suit, seeing this community as an untapped, and potentially industrious, labor force.
To prepare students with autism for these and other tech jobs, education programs nationwide are stepping in to introduce technology training at an early age. In California, STEM3 (cubed) Academy, which teaches science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills for high school students with special needs related to autism spectrum disorder, announced last month that it’s expanding to serve middle school students.
In New York, Leogrande developed the skills he needed to fix that old-fashioned phone at a tech education nonprofit called Tech Kids Unlimited (TKU). Beth Rosenberg, a mother and educator, founded the organization after she realized there was nowhere that would teach her son Jack, who has special needs, how to turn his passion for technology into marketable skills.
For the last few years, TKU has offered in-school and after-school workshops as well as weekend and summer programs in which students learn everything tech, from computer programming and animation to 3D printing and website development. Each TKU classroom has a three-to-one ratio of students to teachers and social workers. And the students have many opportunities to practice so-called “soft skills,” like ordering lunch or negotiating whose turn it is to play Nintendo Wii.
“Our students, if exposed, really can keep up and can be really great technological producers,” Rosenberg said.
At a recent workshop, students learned how to use audio software to create podcasts focused on their areas of interest.
“Paris Metro Broadcast,” one student’s podcast began. “Hi, my name is Bennet Cook and I will talk about the Paris Metro system and its history.”
In his podcast, Cook, 16, laid out plans for expanding and streamlining the Paris Metro so that it can grow efficiently as the population grows.
“I first noticed it when I was reading a book called ‘Paris Underground,’” he said. “And then it really got me thinking, what if I could extend the system itself?”
In creating transit maps, Cook said his brain takes a picture of the current map and revises it for the future.
Advocates believe this kind of passion should be valued and celebrated.
“Society is made stronger with all kinds of minds,” Rosenberg said. “And we know that kids at Tech Kids Unlimited are kids whose brains are just like mini computers, they’re just like mini databases, and shouldn’t those kids be the ones who are working in society in wonderful jobs where they can use their talents?”
Kearon of Autism Speaks said it makes sense that some people with autism thrive in tech environments, which tend to be predictable, systematic and rule-based. But he also stressed that everyone on the spectrum is an individual, with individual interests and skills.
“The autism spectrum is so wide. We know people with PhDs who are mechanical engineers and doctors and professors,” he said. “We also know that there are a lot of people with autism who struggle with daily activities, getting themselves up and out of the house and living in a safe way.”
And not everyone on the spectrum likes technology. One young girl at the podcast workshop said she was only there because her parents had signed her up.
“I just like to shop online,” she said.
Stephen Shore, a professor at Adelphi University in New York who studies autism, said encouraging children on the spectrum to follow their own passions can have a positive impact — as it did for him.
“After 18 months of typical development, I was hit with what I call the autism bomb,” he said. “Which happens to about half of us on the autism spectrum.”
Shore lost the ability to communicate, had repeated meltdowns and withdrew from his environment. His parents refused to institutionalize him, and instead enrolled him in an intensive early intervention program. When he was four, his speech returned.
In school, he said, he didn’t know how to get along with his classmates, bullying was pretty bad and his teachers didn’t know how to teach him. But he had his special interests.
“I would go into the library and pull out all the books in my favorite subject, whatever it was at the time — maybe electricity, aviation, space exploration, earthquakes, whatever it was,” he said. “And I remember in third grade, I had a stack of astronomy books on my desk and the teacher told me that I’d never learn how to do math. But fortunately, I’ve learned just enough math to teach statistics at the university level.”
Shore now divides his time between researching and teaching courses about autism, traveling around the world consulting, writing books on the subject and giving music lessons to children on the spectrum.
He said that, regardless of profession, the most heavily weighted variable in career success is social interaction — often a challenge for people on the autism spectrum. Shore leads workshops for people on the spectrum to teach them how to interact more successfully with others in the workplace. But, he said, it ought to go both ways.
“It’s also a matter of educating employers and society in general for interacting with people on the spectrum,” he said.
And this is starting to happen. Kearon said lately he’s seen a lot more interest from businesses that want to learn.
“They want to talk to us, they want to meet people with autism and they want to train their staff,” he said. “People are recognizing their strengths and so we’re seeing more and more programs developed that are designed to get people with autism to get jobs, which is awesome.”
The nonPareil Institute in Texas provides technical training, employment and housing for people on the spectrum. Specialisterne, a nonprofit founded in Denmark, assesses the strengths of people with autism and then trains them as IT consultants and for other technology jobs around the globe. In San Francisco, The Specialists Guild trains adults with autism for tech jobs in Silicon Valley. And Autism Speaks offers a “tool kit” for businesses that want to learn more.
“I cannot give you numbers, but there is for sure a rising awareness among employers of the quality of services provided by autistic persons,” said Thorkil Sonne, a team member at Specialisterne.
As for Leogrande, he’s not too worried at the moment. First, he has to finish high school. And right now, he’s more focused on fixing the antique, albeit broken, television set he finally convinced his grandmother to give him.