In 2006, a group of dedicated parents, professionals, and advocates in the Baltimore area joined forces to develop a support system for neurodiverse children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who would soon be leaving their school systems and entering the working world. After four years of research and planning, the result was Itineris, Inc., an organization tasked with filling the tremendous gap in adult services specifically for people with ASD, a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior.
Neurodiversity is the concept where the neurological differences of individuals are recognized and respected like any other human trait such as being left-handed or tall in stature. This can include Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourette Syndrome, and many more.
Itineris focuses on supporting adults with ASD who are ages 21 and up in their search for career opportunities and development so that they can meaningfully participate in all aspects of life. Currently, the non-profit has 91 participants in their pre-vocational and customized employment programs. This includes full classroom-style vocational training and life skills programs offered through a custom-created curriculum.
We sat down with Itineris employment director, Katie Vester, to discuss the significance of their work and why employers should see neurodiverse employees as a critical asset to their workforce and growth.
How does Itineris support individuals with ASD?
In the Pre-Vocational Program, individuals work on pre-vocational skills and training, maintaining functional academics, and increasing or developing social/communication skills to increase marketable skills. Additionally, our clinical team focuses on behavior programming and management, which is required for these adults to safely participate in community engagement. These adults are supported in a 1:1 to 1:4 staff-client ratio.
The Employment Program operates with a 1:1 to 1:4 staff-to-client ratio and provides discovery services, career development training, job counselling, job development services, and continual job support to clients with paid or volunteer employment, internships, or self-employment opportunities.
What are some inaccurate assumptions that employers may have about hiring someone with ASD?
Oftentimes it’s assumed that people with ASD do not want to work or that they do not have the skills or intelligence to work. Companies are apprehensive about hiring someone with ASD because they think it will cause more work for them or disrupt their team culture. In fact, the opposite to all of the above are true. Individuals with ASD (and other disabilities) often want to work, and represent an untapped piece of the labor force. This untapped labor pool has a lot of skills to offer the workforce, and with proper accommodations, are able to compete in any vocational field.
What industries are you seeing more neurodiversity in employment?
We individualize each client’s plan and job prospects depending on their personal interests and skill set. When we identify what type of work they are interested in, we look for employer partners that may have a job that would be a good fit for them. There is a trend right now where tech companies are targeting neurodiverse candidates. However, individuals with disabilities often have a variety of aspirations. We support artists and botanists, as well as those who enjoy clerical and IT-related work.
What unique traits do people with autism have to offer an employer?
We like to say if you’ve met one person with ASD, you’ve met one person with ASD. All of our clients have unique traits and personalities that they bring to their new jobs. Very often our clients enjoy repetitive tasks and bring great attention to detail to tasks. This skillset lends itself to data entry jobs. Additionally, individuals with ASD will stay in their jobs for longer periods of time than their neurotypical peers. One of the key benefits is increased retention and the improvement in workplace culture. Individuals with ASD are excited about going to their job every day.
What are some first steps employers can take to become more inclusive in hiring practices and to diversify their workforce?
Hiring professionals can look at their current interviewing process to ensure its inclusive and sensory friendly. This can involve sending a candidate the agenda for the interview or being willing to be flexible and modify the setting to make the candidate more comfortable. Another step would be to reexamine job descriptions. Often, a required skill may not be necessary. For example, we worked with a company that had a high school diploma as a requirement for a recycling technician. After we collaborated with the hiring manager, we were able to pinpoint specific skills that were necessary to complete the job, and we were able to remove that requirement and connect a client to that position.
Can you list some real-world examples where Itineris connected an employer and employee that benefited both parties?
Many employer partners have told us that Itineris clients have been able to increase the productivity of their team and see an improvement in their bottom line. This happened at Biggs and Featherbelle, a small Baltimore-based holistic body products company. They were able to increase their production due to the efforts of the Itineris members. They also said that the Itineris members acted as role models for their neurotypical staff. Our clients came in ready to work, did not engage in ‘water cooler’ conversation, and are genuinely happy to go to work and contribute, and of course get a paycheck!
Employers have told us in learning the communication style of their Itineris employee they are now communicating more efficiently with their entire staff. This happened at Intero Advisory. We got an amazing recommendation letter from the founder of the company that described how her communication methods have changed for her whole team. Existing staff appreciate the company’s willingness to create a diverse workplace and enjoy the opportunity to get to know the new employees. This is also true with W.R. Grace. The Itineris member who works there loves philosophy and has been an asset to their human resources’ trivia team.
Looking to the future, what are some short and long term goals Itineris has for the company?
Our short term goals are to provide the best possible support for our current clients and continue to find them opportunities in the community and workforce. We are in the last phase of a capital campaign to buy our facility with the goal of raising our last million in the next year.
Our long term goal is to improve the lives of as many people with ASD as possible. We hope to do this through our existing program, helping other agencies replicate our success, and creating new programs that help more people with ASD.
To learn more about inclusive hiring practices, watch this video produced by the Maryland Department of Disabilities as they celebrate the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.