Brian Calley is the president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. He served as Michigan’s lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2019.
Imagine this: You sit down for a job interview, wearing a pressed suit or dress, every hair in the right place. Big smile, ready to talk about the skills that make you right for the position. As the interviewer begins, he looks up and says, “Let’s talk about your weaknesses. Why aren’t you a very good writer? Why should I have to deal with this problem at my company?”
For many, this might seem unthinkable. However, for someone with autism attempting to enter the workforce, this is exactly the reception they receive. While we build our lives to highlight individual strengths, too often people with autism are immediately and unfairly judged by their perceived shortcomings. It is time to change our view and tap into this highly-skilled workforce. Michigan can’t afford to leave these passionate and talented people behind.
I am the first to admit, I am also guilty of focusing on shortcomings. When my daughter, Reagan, was first diagnosed with autism, I became unsure of what she would be able to accomplish. I immediately focused on her disability, instead of celebrating her abilities. Luckily, I have had many chances as Reagan’s dad to be amazed. Every day, she shows me how wrong my gut reaction was, and I am so proud of her many talents. She is an avid reader of things that interest her, which span from oceanography and whales to the lives of pop music artists like Taylor Swift. Though I’m amazed by what she knows and the connections she makes, like any parent I’m worried about her future job opportunities.
As lieutenant governor from 2011-2019, and a member of the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) board of directors, I’ve proudly worked side-by-side with advocates, legislators and friends to change how people with autism are treated in Michigan.
In the last decade, we’ve made enormous progress. Because of the work of AAoM and autism advocates across our state, behavioral therapy for someone with autism is now covered by health insurance including Medicaid. This was a huge step in attracting therapists to Michigan to ensure those in need received early support. We also helped change someone with autism’s school experience by eliminating restraints and supporting inclusive teaching practices. This is a strong start, but we can do more.
People with autism are an amazing, untapped pool of talent that are patiently waiting for the right job. Waiting patiently for an open-minded employer is not enough. We can change this, but it involves widening our view of the right workforce. During my time as lieutenant governor, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from companies doing innovative things to recruit diverse talent. For example, Meijer has found great success by hiring people with autism by focusing on what an employee can do and excels at and tailoring jobs and responsibilities to fit the person. This is what everyone wants in the workplace: to be understood and have the opportunity excel.
I want to be clear, I am not advocating for businesses to consider hiring people with autism as a form of charity. People with autism should have the same opportunity as anyone else to excel and thrive in the right position. Making a more inclusive workplace is not a concession, it is an innovative business opportunity. Michigan businesses lead the world in innovation, let’s bring this spirit and knowledge to change who and how businesses hire. With the talent and workforce shortages that Michigan is currently facing, there has never been a better time to ask employers to think about how to get the right employees in the door.
Whenever I talk about employment and autism, I always think about a young man I met who excelled at math. Through a program supporting employment for people with autism, he started an internship with a company to review warranty claims. During the course of the internship, he helped the company save thousands of dollars. It’s safe to say, they were pleased. Ultimately, he was hired as a full-time staff member doing the same work. During a visit to the company, I had the opportunity to meet him and I asked him if he was still finding thousands of dollars in savings. His answer was simple: “No. Millions.” To him, this was not extraordinary. It was his job.
Stories like this are remarkable, but they shouldn’t be. They should be common, because anyone with autism can succeed in the right position, just like anyone without autism. We just need to open our minds, and help connect the right opportunities.
Like any parent, it is my dream that when Reagan goes into her first job interview, she will be measured by what she can do, as opposed to what she cannot do. There are many Michiganders facing the same uphill battle as Reagan. Let’s find a way to bring them into the fold, so we can all benefit.