World Autism Awareness Day is always a bittersweet day for millions of people around the world—including myself—who struggle with the pains of caring for someone with autism. As a mother of two children with autism, a lifelong neurological condition, I worry about their future, knowing that the workplace does not have room for people with disabilities, thereby leaving them with no future to speak of.
As autism affects 1 in 68 children, the epidemic means thousands of children and their families face a life of poverty unless they find meaningful work or entrepreneurship opportunities. Having worked and lived with them for the past 20 years, I know in my mind and heart that they are capable of holding jobs and contributing to the workplace, if only they are given the opportunity and the right skills.
This is why I felt a sense of hope when the UN this year issued an appeal for employers to commit to offering jobs for individuals with autism. I felt even more hopeful when I saw that ADB has started to look at ways to ensure inclusiveness for persons with disability, which I hope would specifically include persons with autism.
The theme of this year’s World Autism Day is Autism and the 2030 Agenda: Inclusion and Diversity. The Sustainable Development Goals, though universally applicable, explicitly address the needs of persons with autism in quality education (SDG4), decent work and economic growth (SDG8), reduced inequality (SDG10), sustainable cities and communities (SDG11), partnerships for the goals (SDG17).
Around the world, highly successful companies such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft are embracing diversity in the workplace for the many benefits it brings. With their unique skills and perspectives, persons with autism can enrich the workplace in many ways. I know, though, that this is an entirely new field not only for employers, but also for governments, development organizations, health professionals, and educators. On several occasions I have been approached by organizations, professionals, and development workers eager to hear my thoughts on how persons with autism can be mainstreamed into the workplace, based on my experience. Let me share these thoughts:
- There has to be a strong push to encourage organizations to take in persons with autism. Organizations should be made aware that with appropriate training and supervision, persons with autism can actually become productive members of the workforce, whether in offices, animation studios, factories, small industries, or farms.
- It’s crucial to raise awareness. Autism continues to be widely misunderstood, creating a stigma that could deter employers from taking in persons with autism. The stigma and discrimination is very real and in your face – I know, I experience it almost everyday. The SM conglomerate in the Philippines trains mall personnel to ensure that the rights of persons with autism are observed, and that they are safe and comfortable inside mall premises.
- Capacity has to be built among organizations that take in persons with autism, as well as educational institutions that train them. Organizations need to know how to design their workplace and policies in a way that would enable persons with autism to perform optimally and integrate seamlessly. Educational institutions, on the other hand, need to know the specific skills employers want, so that they can create programs that would equip persons with autism with these skills.
- Incentives should be given to organizations that hire persons with autism, as well as entrepreneurial ventures formed by persons with autism and their families.
- Governments must support developing technical and vocational programs for persons with autism. I have seen many do well in baking and cooking classes offered by the government-run Technical Education and Skills Development Authority in the Philippines. These programs can be enhanced to make them accessible to more students.
- Development agencies have a role to play. The UN has emphasized the need to mainstream disability in the development agenda. Development agencies could extend their assistance in helping governments find an integrated approach to designing and implementing mainstreaming policies and programs.
These suggestions are very general, and I would love to know other people’s thoughts on ways to bring persons with autism into the workplace, and bring out the best in them. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I say it takes a network of villages to raise a child with autism into a productive adult. Providing them with jobs may sound difficult at the outset, but I believe in my heart and in my mind that it can be done.