As part of Autism Awareness Month, Microsoft is hosting the first Autism @ Work virtual career fair for people on the autism spectrum. The job fair is part of the second annual Autism @ Work Summit held in Palo Alto, California.
The free virtual career fair will connect candidates on the autism spectrum with companies including AT&T, JP Morgan Chase, EY, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Dandelion Program, Ford, NCR, SAP and Microsoft. As part of the career fair, LinkedIn will hold two virtual sessions to help candidates learn how to market themselves on the platform.
“The vast majority of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed, leaving a large pool of untapped talent. If we work together, we can help make a difference,” Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft, wrote on the company’s blog. “At Microsoft, we see disability as a strength. While we are early in our journey, we are dedicated to growing our program as we listen and learn from the broader community.”
The Autism @ Work event is just one way Microsoft hopes to engage with the autism workforce. Two years ago, the company launched its Autism Hiring Program, which allows qualified candidates to attend a weeklong hiring academy as a nontraditional way of applying for full-time positions at Microsoft.
My name is Tom Bak, and I am 17 years old. I was diagnosed with autism when I was 3. On March 31, I attended World Autism Awareness Day at the United Nations. The theme for World Autism Awareness Day 2017 was autonomy and self-determination for people with autism.
The Keynote Address was given by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. I especially appreciated Professor Baron-Cohen’s statements about his experiences in working with people with autism. He shared a lot of details and facts. One detail I was glad he included was comorbid conditions, such as epilepsy. This is especially important to me because I have epilepsy and it affects my life as much as my autism does. I was glad to see more attention paid to comorbid conditions because they can be common among people with autism like me.
Professor Baron-Cohen also spoke about exclusion of people with autism from schools, from employment, and from doing fun things like going to the movies, which affects their quality of life. I think we can include people with autism in the broader community by offering greater acceptance. Professor Baron-Cohen also addressed suicide rates in the autism community. I felt saddened that suicide rates were higher for people with autism. I wonder if building acceptance of autism could possibly reduce suicide rates. If so, we can and for this reason alone should work on building acceptance of people with autism.
A major topic of the conference involved the discussion of supported versus substituted decision-making.I thought a lot about this discussion because I’m going to be 18 this year and I want to be able to make decisions for myself. However I have friends who have a really hard time doing things for themselves and communicating their choices. Professor Theresia Degener, Vice Chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, talked about a greater need for autonomy and independence for people with autism. I think that if we make decisions for somebody, we have to be careful to protect and ensure their equal rights. I believe this is one of the most complicated issues facing the autism community. To better understand decision-making in people with autism who can’t communicate a choice, we should learn more about what we can do better to understand them.
Another panel topic was relationships, including friendship. Daniel Emig, a self-advocate and Rooster Ranch Leader from the Autism Housing Network, spoke about his childhood and how he felt isolated when he didn’t have a connection to friendships. It made me realize how important my friends are to me. Mr. Emig’s words about friendship being important reminded me of what Professor Baron-Cohen said about exclusion of people with autism. Mr. Emig discussed his personal barriers where there wasn’t a lot of acceptance for him. Mr. Emig and Professor Baron-Cohen said that there are a lot of barriers for adults with autism like exclusion from the community and the workplace. It made me think that if communities were more accepting, more people with autism could get employment and have relationships. I believe relationships are another important area where acceptance matters for people with autism.
Noah McCourt, a former candidate for Waconia City Council, Minnesota, was part of the panel on Training and Employment. He is also a self-advocate for autism. Mr. McCourt spoke about how his opponents used the fact that he has autism in an attempt to damage his campaign for City Council. I believe that his opponents using his autism against him during the campaign was wrong. If he decides to run for office in the future, his autism should be accepted, not used against him. He said that he plans to run for office again in 2018, and I hope he will win.
I had an excellent experience at World Autism Awareness Day at the United Nations. While I was there, I learned one thing: we have made a lot of progress in autism acceptance, but we still have a lot of work to do for people with autism to be more fully included in their own decision-making, establishing and making social connections, and even entering careers in politics. My hope for next year is that more people with autism will be present at World Autism Awareness Day.
This was the toddler who could not wear hats or mittens and who struggled with the change of seasons because that meant wearing different or new clothes. The little boy who wore the same doctor’s costume (shirt only) for three Halloweens in a row because costumes and change were terrifying.
This was the elementary student who sat alone at lunch and stood by the door at recess afraid of thunderstorms, bugs and the possibility of an ill-fated social encounter. This was the middle schooler who almost didn’t audition for Chambers Singers because it was new and taking risks was difficult for him to handle. The middle schooler who couldn’t wear cargo shorts and khaki pants like other kids because his body just wouldn’t allow it. This was a new high school freshman who felt like he was invisible and that no one knew he existed within the walls of his high school.
This is a teenager who still worries about taking risks (because sometimes things don’t go as you plan), but overcame that worry and took a risk by auditioning for his high school musical where he has never danced a step in his life. A teenager who once felt like he didn’t belong yet now declares his fellow cast members family.” A teenager who told his directors and his parents that he has “never felt so confident and proud of himself in his entire life” as he did tonight on that stage taking risks.
Crushing stereotypes, destroying fallacies, proving “experts” wrong and showing every single person on that stage and in that audience the real meaning behind “different, not less.”
The most important person he proved that to, was himself.
The lady clinging to this teenager is his mother. A mother who felt her face would crack from smiling every time he walked onto that stage. A mother who remembers the toddler who struggled with change, the little boy who was so worried and anxious, the middle schooler who wanted to find his place, and the new freshman who felt so isolated. A mother who now sees a teenager demonstrating confidence, pride and joy in a way the two of them once only dreamed about, by taking a risk, by stepping way outside his comfort zone and by believing in himself.
Each state will be able to open their own ABLE savings program. An individual with a qualifying disability may save up to $14,000 annually, without losing access to means-tested benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid. A maximum amount of $100,000 may be saved in an ABLE account before Social Security begins to count the amount against the asset limit for SSI. The money in these accounts may be withdrawn tax-free for use for qualifying disability expenses.
As a person who is on the autism spectrum, I want to work. I currently work part-time at Home Depot as the garden loader. Currently, I’m purposefully limiting myself to working no more than six hours a week; if I worked any longer than that, I would be at risk of losing my SSI and Medicaid benefits. SSI has a $2,000 asset limit for single disabled adults. In some states, the Medicaid asset limit is even lower than this. I am forced to choose between working more or losing access to the healthcare benefits and support I receive through Medicaid.
I saw an article late last year about Ohio’s ABLE Account program called STABLE Accounts. Ohio’s STABLE Accounts are open to anyone with a qualifying disability, nationwide, not just in Ohio. I opened my STABLE account recently, and I plan on funding it with some of the money I make from Home Depot. Next year, when I graduate with my Bachelor’s degree, I am hoping to work a lot more than I do now that I have the security of the STABLE Account.
With my STABLE Account, I am optimistic that I will be able to work at least 20 hours a week, put some of that money away in my STABLE Account, and still keep my Medicaid benefits. My STABLE Account money will be there for me when I have a disability expense that needs to be paid for. I am incredibly thankful that Congress and the Ohio Treasurer’s Office made the STABLE Accounts possible. I now know that I will be able to work, and save, and achieve the independence I’ve always dreamed of having.