Employing People with Autism Unlocks Their Extraordinary Abilities

Neil Samahon, CEO of nonprofit organization Opportunity Enterprises, wrote this week’s Industry Voices.

It’s a great time to be in the recycling industry, and that was never more evident than during ISRI2022. Prices are favorable and opportunities are plentiful. The one area that is still causing headaches in our industry is the current staffing crisis; many companies are experiencing an unprecedented workforce shortage.

I spent 25 great years in the recycling industry before transitioning to CEO of Opportunity Enterprises, an organization that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). When I was the CEO of a recycling company, I hired individuals who were served by the organization I now lead. I knew that the industry needed to hear and learn about the opportunity that exists in hiring individuals that many seemingly don’t recognize could benefit their organizations. I discussed this very topic during my ISRI2022 session, “An Untapped Labor Solution: Successfully Employing Those with Disabilities.”

April is Autism Awareness Month. I think it’s a great time to reframe the conversation and take the time to highlight the unique abilities found in many individuals with autism.

Also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), autism is a developmental disability broadly characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. Two percent of adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Individuals on the spectrum can vary from highly skilled to severely challenged.

Although individuals with autism may have different ways of learning, paying attention, or communicating, who amongst us doesn’t? As an employer, we should focus on the talents of potential employees, and the traits they possess that could benefit an organization.

With 81% of adults with IDD unemployed, shouldn’t we look at what abilities they have? One benefit of the current workforce crisis is that many employers are starting to do just that. Many have recognized the challenges they may have perceived prior to hiring employees with IDD either aren’t there or aren’t as significant—especially compared to the benefits.

Individuals with IDD, especially those diagnosed with autism, are known to be dependable; engaged; motivated; have outstanding attendance; high on-the-clock engagement; highly attentive to their quality of work; and highly productive. Individuals characterized with repetitive behaviors can often excel in areas that require attention to detail or are, in fact, repetitive-oriented tasks that oftentimes are a challenge for neurotypical employees.

There are individuals with extraordinary talents, skills, and abilities diagnosed with ASD who are undervalued and underutilized. Additionally, there is a vast pool of capable and qualified businesses to provide meaningful employment that could help quell the growing workforce crises.

Autism Awareness Month took on a new meaning for me when I began my role as CEO of Opportunity Enterprises. My focus is on serving people with disabilities and being an advocate for them.

I am also fortunate to still be a part of the recycling industry, as I operate a paper and electronic recycling division where 70% of the employees are diagnosed with a disability. The operation is both National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) and e-Stewards certified. I have a talented, productive, and dedicated workforce that otherwise might have been overlooked.

If you are looking to expand your workforce and your revenue, take a closer look at the diversity and inclusivity of your workforce. During Autism Awareness Month, it is so important for those who may not be personally affected by ASD to take a moment and consider how you can be part of a movement to ensure those with disabilities are given equal opportunities for using their talents and skills to be successful and contributing members of our communities.

I am so happy that ISRI is championing diversity and inclusivity in the industry. I am looking forward to how—together—we can make this industry a leader in how to engage, include and empower individuals in our society that might otherwise be underserved and overlooked.