86% of adults with autism are unemployed. This job fair aims to change that

Hundreds attended the Spectrum Works Autism Job Fair in downtown Toronto to fight the stigma attached to people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and give them the chance to find meaningful work.

Spectrum Works Autism Job Fair has grown significantly since it started in 2017, founder says

Hundreds lined up to speak to employers at the third annual Spectrum Works Autism Job Fair on April 8. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

High school student Jacklyn Taccogna describes herself as determined, funny and meticulous when it comes to her work.

But, she says, employers sometimes miss those qualities because they make assumptions about her autism.

"'Oh, you're going to drag us down,' or, 'Oh, you must be too slow,'" she said, describing the attitudes of some potential employers.

"I wish more companies were more … accepting of people with different abilities. Try to find strengths instead of weaknesses," she said.

Jacklyn Taccogna attended the job fair with a group of students from her school, Philip Pocock Catholic Secondary School. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

Taccogna is one of hundreds who attended the Spectrum Works Autism Job Fair Monday at Metro Hall in downtown Toronto.

It's an annual, multi-city event — running in Toronto, Richmond B.C. and Montreal — aimed at fighting the stigma attached to people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in order to give them the chance to find meaningful work.

According to the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability, the employment rate for autistic adults is 14.3 per cent, compared to 92.7 per cent for the general population.

"If we can help this community even tackle a percentage of that number, it would be a job well done on us," said Xavier Pinto, co-founder of Substance Cares, the Toronto-based charitable organization behind the event.

"A lot of people won't be able to express themselves right there in person, sometimes it's anxiety, sometimes it's nerves," he said.

At the event, participants are able to sit down with employers in a more informal, conversational setting, making a difficult social situation just a bit easier, he said.

"We just want to open up the conversation between employers and applicants."

Xavier Pinto says the event helps people on the autism spectrum who may find it difficult to express themselves in a traditional interview setting. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

Attendance growing

According to Pinto, this year's event drew between 400 and 500 attendees, more than the past two years combined.

He attributes the attendance to a line-up of 17 large employers, including many major banks and tech companies. 

Sophia Dritsas, a diversity recruitment consultant with Scotiabank, says they've hired multiple people from the event in previous years.

"We're looking for top talent at the end of the day, and that includes people with disabilities. It includes people on the spectrum," she said.

"Everyone has a different way of working and I think that's just the competitive advantage that we get by combining everyone's unique strengths and abilities."

From left to right, Scotiabank employees Joanne Cassidy, Sophia Dritsas, Loran Upton and Natascha Shakes. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

Many participants said they felt grateful for the relaxed opportunity to showcase their skills.

Anthony Porto Carrero stood in line with his mother, Juana Garcia, excited to speak to employers about a job in video games.

"It's hard to find my right position, how to handle my type of days and how to be on-time," he said.

Garcia added her son thinks about the world in a different way, making him a valuable asset to an employer.

"Our children are very smart. Children on the spectrum are very smart, they have great abilities, but they need support to develop those abilities into the workplace," she said.

"They can create amazing things."

Anthony Porto Carrero and his mother, Juana Garcia, came from Scarborough to the event at Metro Hall in downtown Toronto. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

The event's success is especially important for Pinto, as his nine-year-old son also has autism.

"I hope that by the time he's of age that people on the spectrum will be very well accepted within the workplace and that he has a choice of going after what he wants," he said.

Pinto estimates about 10 per cent of attendees were hired last year.

"This year, we're hoping for more as a lot of the organizations that have come in have actual positions available for people that they're looking to fill," he said.

Taccogna is hoping to snag one of those spots.

She didn't find a fit at last year's job fair, but she came back this year to try again.

"I think if you give me the time I can be a very reliable worker," she said.

"[Autism is] not a burden, it's not anything bad. It's just something that a lot of people have and it's not a big deal."