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Temple Grandin

Matt Sayles, Associated Press

Autistic workers can help firms grow

  • Article by: DEE DePASS
  • Star Tribune
  • February 20, 2011 - 1:36 PM

Temple Grandin wants more autistic people in your workplace. If they don't become part of the workforce, your company will lose out.

That was the key message from Grandin, the famous industrial designer and fellow "ASbie" (a term referring to the "autism spectrum") who designed Cargill's slaughterhouses across the United States and Canada.

The noted author, animal scientist and subject of an HBO movie about autism drew more than 1,600 corporate executives, state officials and parents to the first annual Autism and Employment Forum at 3M last week.

Cargill, 3M Co., Best Buy and the Autism Society of Minnesota sponsored the event, which hoped to raise awareness in the workplace and improve the hiring rates of people with autism. Only 3 percent of people with autism are currently employed. It used to be that one in 250 people would be diagnosed with autism. Today that number is one in 91. It's more prevalent today than ever, executives said in explaining why they asked Grandin to talk to Twin Cities business leaders.

"I'm convinced that this group is one of the most untapped pools of talent we have," said Best Buy's Webteam vice president Cindy Holker.

Bill Buckner, senior vice president of Cargill's animal nutrition division, said he first worked with Grandin more than 20 years ago when she designed enclosed, curving and narrowing pathways that helped calm cows heading into slaughterhouses. The design reduced animal stress and injury.

Grandin "has brought a lot of richness to my life and others. ... She helped us grow over the years, especially in the area of animal handling. Cargill owes a lot to this one person. ... She had a huge impact on our plants," he said. In response, "We are increasing the awareness and the employment opportunities for people with [mild autism] and other disabilities."

Grandin represented not only the face of autism but the hope of what employers could gain if they became educated, sponsors said.

The funny, driven and autistic Grandin did not disappoint the throngs who came to see her in 3M's Building 224. People with mild autism or Asperger's syndrome are basically "geeks," Grandin said. They have tremendous skills that can help corporations solve problems, grow sales and program a company's ways to greatness, she said.

Silicon Valley, Hollywood, corporate labs and IT departments are often "loaded" with well-paid individuals who live somewhere on the spectrum of autism, Grandin insisted.

Many just haven't been diagnosed yet, she said, and so don't carry the label of the illness, which is typically characterized by heightened intellect, awkward social skills, black-and-white, literal reasoning, an intolerance of noise and the inability to read facial cues or body language.

Be specific

But people with the brain disorder also frequently possess a commanding grasp of science, statistics, research and engineering. They make great innovators, engineers, scientists and graphic designers, said Grandin. For example, her ability to think in pictures allows her to "see" every aspect of an industrial machine before she draws it.

"OK, businesses: So why should you hire the 'ASbie' geek? Because they are the ones who will solve the energy crisis," she said. With job coaching and the training of managers, more ASbies can enter the workforce and do more than collect a Social Security check each month, she added.

ASbie's "can be taught social skills" in the workplace. The key is to be highly specific about which behaviors work. "Don't be subtle," Grandin said. It's not enough to tell the employee that the lunchroom is open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The ASbie worker may interpret that to mean that he is to take a two-hour lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. "Now how long do you think it will be before that worker gets fired?" she quipped.

Instead, tell him that lunch is a 30-minute time slot anytime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., she said. "Be specific." It's not helpful to tell the ASbie worker "not to be rude." Instead, calmly explain that they shouldn't chase that disinterested customer all over the store.

She suggested bosses help train "ASbies" by letting them watch co-workers who demonstrate great customer service on store surveillance videos.

Some workers, including Grandin, need special accommodations. Grandin, a Ph.D. and an animal science professor at Colorado State University, needs a quiet workplace to combat sensory overload.

Officials from 3M, Best Buy and Cargill gave the crowd countless examples of how employees "on the spectrum" had helped their companies. Buckner unveiled a pilot program at Cargill for autistic students in high school. Best Buy launched an e-learning website to help workers develop social skills and better read facial expressions and nonverbal language.

Grandin admitted that she didn't learn to read people's expressions until she was 50 years old.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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