Ryan Nault didn’t finish college and struggled to find a career path in his 20s, when his sensitivity to noise made his job at a printing plant a poor fit. During an interview, another prospective employer told Nault that he talked too much about sports. At age 30, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism.
Not long after, Nault discovered Mind Shift, one of a few Milwaukee organizations that have emerged in recent years to tackle the high rate of unemployment among adults with autism, which some studies place as high as 85%. Mind Shift frames the hiring process around what job candidates can contribute to a team, rather than how they perform in traditional interviews, a common barrier when autistic people seek employment.
“Many businesses think providing accommodations means, ‘I have to expect less from you,’” says Jean Roberts-Guequierre, Mind Shift’s Milwaukee employment services manager. “Accommodation means ‘What do [people with autism] need to have in order to be successful?’” Mind Shift evaluated Nault and found his skills with data and spreadsheets, which he used working as an assistant high school football coach, were a good match for its data analytics “swat team.” At age 34, Nault now supervises six specialists.
“My initial goal was to become a team lead, and I achieved that within a year, so I was pretty proud of myself,” Nault says. “So now it’s, ‘OK, maybe I can grow this data team into a data unit, where there are several different teams, and I’m the head of the entire unit.”
Work has changed the lives of Mind Shift’s specialists in ways many neurotypical people take for granted, enabling them to move out of their parents’ houses and start saving for retirement, Roberts-Guequierre says.
Islands of Brilliance, a Milwaukee organization founded in 2012, pairs kids and teenagers on the spectrum with professional mentors in the art, design and technology fields. Since launching a distance learning model in March, Islands of Brilliance has provided more than 2,800 hours of online instruction to students from the Milwaukee area and around the country.
Danielle Lamere, a junior at Burlington High School, enrolled in 2017 after being severely bullied in middle school. She is learning 2D and 3D software tools that she hopes will help her achieve her dream of becoming a professional artist. “Islands really helped me have some confidence in my work, and it gave me someone to actually share my ideas with,” Lamere says. “[It] gave me a beacon to go toward because, other than that, it really felt like I had nothing.”
Islands of Brilliance is the front end of a “neurodiverse talent pipeline,” says Mark Fairbanks, Islands’ executive director, that connects to groups like Mind Shift. Fairbanks and his wife, Margaret, who serves as director of education, co-founded the organization, fueled by a doctor who told them to “lower your expectations” following their now-adult son’s autism diagnosis. Fairbanks says mentors and prospective employers who witness the talents of Islands of Brilliance students firsthand have the opposite Response.
“Experiential perception changes everything,” he says. “Once you see that, you become part of the movement that says, ‘This population is capable.’”