Why a London comic book store has hired employees with autism

A quarter of the employees at Heroes Comics in downtown London is on the autism spectrum.

A quarter of the employees at Heroes Comics in downtown London is on the autism spectrum.

Elsbeth Dodman said of her friends on the autism spectrum, she's one of the only people with a job. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Elsbeth Dodman first wandered into Heroes Comics as a high school student, not long after being diagnosed with autism.

She would get anxious waiting for the bus after school, so one day she decided to peruse the store in downtown London.

The rows of comics had a way of making her feel calm and utterly giddy at the same time. She has problems picking up on social cues, but felt like she fit in at the store.

Heroes Comics became her refuge.

If you've never been to Heroes Comics, it's packed with thousands of comics, action figures and playing cards. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

"I was in so often that they gave me an honourary membership," Dodman said with a laugh.

That membership ended up turning into a job. Dodman, who is now 29, is one of three employees on the autism spectrum at Heroes Comics, meaning a quarter of its staff lives with autism.

The autism spectrum refers to a range of conditions including challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, and nonverbal communication.

'It's not charity'

The story of how each of the three employees started working at the store is very much the same — they love comics, came into the store regularly, and showed a keenness to work.

Owner Brahm Wiseman said it wasn't an intentional move to make his hiring more inclusive, but he's glad it has worked out this way.

Brahm Wiseman, owner of Heroes Comics, said he didn't realize at the time of hiring workers with autism how important it is to reflect all comic book readers through an inclusive staff. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

"I don't think I realized it was important, but I think it's important to have a diverse staff and to give people a chance" said Wiseman.

Wiseman said he looks at somebody's passion for comics and work ethic instead of skills or limitations.

Dodman remembers looking for a job before Wiseman hired her. She describes the process as isolating and confusing. She said once she got an interview she would worry that she would say something wrong, and the employer would find out she has autism.

She pointed out that of her group of friends on the autism spectrum, she's one of the only people with a job.  

Dodman's message to employers?

"It's not charity. We're good employees — we're often on time, we're loyal, we like routine, so once you set a schedule for when I'm supposed to work, I'm going to be there," said Dodman.

"It's about good business sense for you as well."

Creating comics

Dodman's time at the store has not only bolstered her skills and confidence, it's also fostered a love of creating comics.

One of the store managers owns a local comic book publishing company. He put a call out to staff for ideas and Dodman answered.

She just started selling her comic book, Wall — a post-apocalyptic story of a city that has been walled off from people-eating monsters.

Elsbeth Dodman released Wall, her first comic book, in early May. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

But Dodman said her story has a deeper meaning, with a parallel to her own life.

"It's about life being hard and unfair … finding something to hang on to in difficult times."

And for Dodman, that's the comic book store.

"It gives me somewhere to go during the day. It gives me something to be passionate about, something to work for," said Dodman.

About the Author

Julianne Hazlewood

Host

Julianne Hazlewood is the host of London Morning. She has worked across the country at CBC newsrooms in Ottawa, Vancouver, Windsor, Fredericton and Saskatoon.