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Delaware companies find value in autistic workers

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(AP) — More and more Delaware companies are seeking out people with autism because they’re finding they have qualities — particularly their attention to detail and fierce loyalty — that make them high performing employees.

Statistics show that about 70 to 90 percent of people with autism in the U.S. are highly underemployed or unemployed. Katina Demetriou, director of Autism Delaware’s Productive Opportunities for Work & Recreation, said Delaware is at the forefront in terms of states looking at employing autistic people.

People with autism often have difficulty communicating and interacting with others, which can put them at a disadvantage during job interviews.

“We have individuals in their 20s, 30s or 40s who have never before had a meaningful career opportunity,” said Ernie Dianastasis, CEO of The Precisionists, a Wilmington startup that helps employ people with disabilities.

“They’ve been tied up in parents’ basements playing Xbox or really underemployed,” he said. “People are starting to understand their strength and capabilities.”

While the exact number of people with autism in Delaware is unknown, the state’s Department of Education estimates 1,660 public school students in 2015 had autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the disorder occurs in 1 in every 68 children under 8 in the U.S.

The disorder has symptoms that can range from mild to severe.

David Butt used to sort files in a Delaware government office. Wesley Gibbs reset passwords for an education nonprofit. Both men now work full time at JPMorgan Chase, and Gibbs recently received a promotion.

Kevin Hamill pushed carts at Walmart, or what he called “herding silver buffalo.” He now works the assembly lines as a contractor for Tesla Industries and hopes to be hired full-time in the coming months.

Over the years, all three applied for jobs in fields they went to school for, but had a hard time getting past the in-person interview. So they took these jobs, despite the limited opportunities for advancement.

Demetriou and Dianastasis credits former Gov. Jack Markell, who made workforce development for people with disabilities a priority during his 2012-2013 term as chair of the National Governors Association.

In recent years, Demetriou has seen a “great shift” in companies hiring employees with autism.

Demetriou credits this to the increase in societal awareness of autism and companies changing the way they do interviews. More organizations are doing video and working résumés, in which an applicant talks or demonstrates their skills on video.

This allows employers to see these potential candidates in a new light, she said.

Dianastasis launched his company last year with the goal of employing 10,000 people with disabilities by 2025. The startup has contracted work with a handful of companies and employs right now about 100 people.

Before the employees get to work — which can either be in The Precisionists’ Wilmington office or at the company — the startup conducts a four-week assessment of the adults with autism. This allows them to gauge which types of jobs would be best for each person.

Most of the people The Precisionists works with tend to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, meaning they are highly intelligent and have underdeveloped social skills, said Diane Shea, director of delivery services at The Precisionists.

Once the employees start working, The Precisionists continue to mentor and counsel them. They also provide training to the companies’ managers and employees about autism and the best way to handle different workplace scenarios.

The startup recently began working with Tesla Industries, a New Castle company that makes power conversion systems for vehicles and aircraft. The company frequently works with the U.S. military.

Nine Precisionists employees assemble electronic circuit boards and power conversion units and perform quality control functions. The company also has the option of hiring The Precisionists employees full-time once the contract has ended.

Hamill, 26, who used to work at Walmart, was the first Precisionists employee to work at Tesla. The Newark resident said he finds this work to be much more fulfilling and purposeful, since it helps soldiers deployed overseas.

Hamill said The Precisionists helped him with the “professional side of working.” This ranges from making sure his shirt is tucked in to having a better idea how to navigate conversations with his boss.

Shea said Hamill’s manager asked for “25 more Kevins” shortly after he started working there. The organization hopes to increase the number of people working at Tesla.

“I don’t mind getting up in the morning anymore,” Hamill said. “I could see myself working here until I retire.”

Since starting its program three years ago, JPMorgan Chase employs 30 people with autism in nine different roles. While most of these employees are based in Delaware, others are located in Ohio and even in India. The company plans to employ 300 people by 2020, said James Mahoney, executive director and head of Autism at Work for JPMorgan Chase.

Similar to The Precisionists, JPMorgan Chase works with Computer Aid Inc, a global IT company in Allentown, Pennslyvania, to find and recruit potential employees. They, too, go through an assessment period and many have been hired full-time by JPMorgan Chase, Mahoney said.

“This is not charity, it’s talent play,” Mahoney said. “We truly believe we’re going after an untapped talent pool that has been underemployed.”

Within three to six months of working at the company, employees with autism have been at the same performance level as employees who have worked at JPMorgan Chase for years, Mahoney said.

The employees on the spectrum have also been 48 percent more productive than “typical” employees at the same six month stage, he said.

Mahoney said he’s noticed a change in the company’s culture in the past three years. More employees feel it has become a place “where you can bring all of yourself to work.” Some employees have even “come out” about being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, he said.

Butt, 24, who once sorted files for the state, began working at JPMorgan Chase as a contractor in March 2016 and was hired in July. He works as a quality assurance tester, in which he helps make sure the financial company’s programs and websites are working properly.

“Sorting files is boring,” he said. “But with this, I learn a lot. And it’s really interesting to me.”

A few months ago, Butt received an employee recognition award. He said it’s one of his favorite moments of working at JPMorgan Chase so far. The plaque hangs in his cubicle.

Gibbs, 30, has worked at JPMorgan Chase for more than a year, a couple months of which have been as a full-time employee. Compared to other jobs, working as a fraud analyst is much more “dynamic,” Gibbs said.

Like others on the spectrum, Gibbs said he’s faced roadblocks when looking for jobs — despite having a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree in political science.

He hopes other companies will work to eliminate any misconceptions they have about people with autism and begin seeing them as candidates who have full potential. Just because someone might have difficulty making eye contact doesn’t make them less intelligent, he said.

For the first time, Gibbs envisions himself moving up the corporate ladder and eventually having a managerial position.

“I tend to be a private person. I think that held me back,” he said. “I was hesitant to build relationships.

“With this new job, it’s going straight forward.”

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