British Columbia

Job fair breaks down employment barriers for Canadians living with autism

The event in Richmond, B.C., on Monday is offering up ways to make the workplace and jobs market more accommodating. According to a 2012 survey on disability, adults with autism have the lowest employment rate in Canada at just 14 per cent.

Employment rate for Canadian adults with autism is just 14%, according to 2012 study

Katherine Shadwick (left) and Heather Linka will be at Monday's job fair encouraging people with autism to enter the workforce. (Clare Hennig/CBC)

For people living with autism spectrum disorder, getting a job comes with specific challenges.

"I would always get stymied at the interview stage," said Katherine Shadwick, who has a bachelor's degree in geological engineering but struggled to get a foot in the door after graduation.

That's because Shadwick, who is on the autism spectrum, says she can have trouble connecting with the subtext of what is being said.

"If you tell me one thing and don't make it very obvious that you're saying it in a sarcastic manner, for example, I might not pick up on the sarcasm and might take it for face value," she told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC'sThe Early Edition.

During a traditional interview, that makes it much more difficult to sell herself to a potential employer and highlight her skills, she added.

"People with autism usually end up being misjudged in a way:  I do have friends, I empathize, I have lots of emotions," Shadwick said.

"I was just having trouble finding jobs because of that people connection [in the interview]."

Alternative interviews

After partnering with a professional services firm that helps connect people who are on the spectrum with employers and facilitates the interview process, Shadwick found a job as a software tester at Vancity credit union.

"They see if your personality is a good fit, and then they give you some pre-employment classes and additional testing, and then they match you with an employer," Shadwick said.

"I never did an interview directly with Vancity."

She's speaking about her experience — and ways to improve the workplace and jobs market for people with different abilities — at a Spectrum Works job fair in Richmond, B.C., on Monday.  

According to a 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability, adults with autism have the lowest employment rate in Canada at just 14 per cent — compared to the general population at 93 per cent.

"People that are on the spectrum are highly intelligent," Shadwick said.

"Sometimes, we need more structure and clearer expectations but, once we get something, we get it and we're good."

Katherine Shadwick is a software tester and lives with autism spectrum disorder. Heather Linka is neurodiversity employment consultant. The two are speaking with people at the Spectrum Works job fair, to get those with ASD get a job. 8:45

'Intentional autism hiring'

Heather Linka, a neurodiversity employment consultant and employer coordinator with the job fair, works with people including Shadwick to break down employment barriers in the IT sector.

Adjustments in the hiring process and accommodations in the workplace can be put in place for what she calls "intentional autism hiring."

"We recommend things like skill-testing questions or a more casual meet-and-greet environment rather than the [traditional] interview," Linka said.

On the job, accommodations could include things like tailoring the sitting arrangement in open-desk environments or making some sensory adjustments in places with fluorescent lighting.

Clear expectations and communication are key, Linka emphasized.

"Generally, it's just mindfulness and education on both sides," she said.

With files from The Early Edition

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