Workers with Autism Offer Loyalty and Skill

Thomas bagging groceries
Thomas, a student at Minnesota Life College, works as a grocery store bagger

Many institutions of higher learning would envy the statistics of Minnesota Life College: More than 92 percent of last year’s graduates had employment when they graduated. More than a third of their alumni have maintained their current job for two or more years.

But Minnesota Life College isn’t a degree-granting program. Sarah Arentson, Work Readiness Program Coordinator, said, “We are a three-year undergraduate program serving adults aged eighteen to twenty-eight with autism or other learning differences.” What students learn, according to the tagline, are “real skills for real life.” The undergraduate program includes freshman internships and career exploration. At graduation, participants are read for “paid, competitive-level employment,” Arentson said.

Annie at Walgreen's
Minnesota Life College student Annie works at Walgreen’s

Growing Above and Beyond

Students and graduates work in a range of occupations. Jeff Myhre, Job Developer, said, “I have three people on my case load that work as baggers.” There are graduates working in senior living assisted living homes as dishwashers, and servers. Some have retail jobs at places like Walgreens and SuperAmerica. One alum moves cars at a Honda dealership. Another is a full-time mail room employee.

“We’re trying to get them a good fit,” Arentson said. “Starting with freshmen internships and volunteering, we have a good idea what students are looking for. We’re not just throwing them at the nearest fast food.”

Myhre said, “Part of what attracted me is that Minnesota Life College says they ‘champion’ the folks that they serve. There’s a strong force to have students go above and beyond what is comfortable. There is more of a drive to let these folks fail or succeed, rather than making sure that there’s no room for them to grow by making them safe.”

The high retention rates for alumni come in part because job coaches who monitor satisfaction and performance know “we’re looking for increasing hours and job duties vs. switching jobs. It’s about growing once they’re there,” Arentson said.

A Small Accommodation Is Not a Big Deal

Lizzie at Walgreen's
Minnesota Life College student Lizzie works at Walgreen’s

Myhre said his clients with autism and other learning differences require less “job carving” than workers with developmental disabilities. Many can work thirty hours a week. Myhre said workers   may need some accommodations, like earphones to block distracting noise. Many students rely on Metro Mobility, which requires employers to be someone flexible about starting times. Arenston noted, “Because all students live on campus, we have a little more control on day to day, scheduling, getting on the bus. It’s good to be able to offer that support when needed.” Support is available 24/7, Myhre said.

Like Marilee Larson from TSE, Inc., Myhre said, “This is a good time to be a job developer. We still hear more no’s than yesses. But the no’s are usually the type anybody would get if they checked out an application. Sometimes they have to do with individual’s limitations, not being able to work forty hours hours, rather than their skill. I think that in the past two years I’ve seen the tide turning with employers understanding that a small accommodation for workers with autism is not a big deal. ”

Can They Learn? Absolutely.

Myhre noted, “Loyalty comes up more and more because it seems like the people in the nine-fifty to ten-dollar-an-hour jobs leave at a moment’s notice. That’s why business owners really cherish someone who has the intent to stay around for a while. I’ve heard a trend of employers saying ‘I don’t care if they don’t have previous job experience. The question is ‘can they learn?’ The answer is ‘absolutely.’ That’s all employers care about.”


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