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Stanford program matches autistic job seekers with employers

Psychiatrist Lawrence Fung expanded his autism research into developing a program that helps those on the spectrum find jobs.

- By Tracie White

Rebecca Edwards is a life science technician in the Neuroscience Gene Vector and Virus Core at Stanford.
Tracie White

Rebecca Edwards pulls on a pair of blue gloves and a blue lab coat before entering the biohazard lab room where she spends most of her workdays. It’s her job to care for bacteria that are used to make genetically modified viruses. Alone in this tiny room filled with lab equipment — a sub-zero freezer, a sink, an incubator, and rows of flasks and test tubes — she’s in charge.

“This is kind of my territory,” she said, smiling as she inspected tubes filled with a cloudy liquid. Each day, she has a routine that requires intense concentration — growing the bacteria, extracting its DNA strands, labeling each tube and keeping track of inventory on the computer.

“It’s just me and three other women working in the entire lab,” said Edwards, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when she was 8 years old. “I don’t work well with other people unless it’s small groups, and I’m good at detailed work, so this job is great.”

Edwards is among the first dozen or so individuals with autism to find employment through the Stanford Neurodiversity at Work program, a research project based on the philosophy that neurodiverse individuals, such as those with autism or ADHD, have brain differences that are normal, rather than deficits — and can be advantageous in the workplace.

The program, started by Lawrence Fung, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, matches employers with autistic job seekers. Employers receive training on interviewing, hiring and working with autistic employees during the recruitment process and for 12 weeks after hiring. Job candidates, who must agree to participate in a study for 18 months, can sign up at no cost. They too receive training and support during the interview process and for 12 weeks after being hired.

Currently, the project is funded to place those on the autism spectrum in jobs, but Fung’s plan is to eventually expand it to include all neurodiverse individuals.

“The unemployment rate for those on the autism spectrum is high, with some estimates topping 80%,” Fung said. People with autism “often don’t make good first impressions,” he added, “so it’s hard to assess their abilities, and they often don’t know how to ask for accommodations. They feel that if they tell people they are on the spectrum, they are going to be written off. Having a specialized employment program can help with that.”

Learning about autism first hand

Fung’s interest in neurodiversity began when he was in medical school and his then-3-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. He had planned to become a cancer researcher, but he switched to psychiatry.

            Lawrence Fung

“If not for my son, I would have been an oncologist,” Fung said. “When I first got into researching autism, I thought the logical way to develop treatments for people on the autism spectrum was to first understand the biology underlying their behavioral differences. But I very quickly came to the conclusion that autism is a very heterogenous condition. Millions of people in this country are on the spectrum. There are over 1,000 genes associated with autism. To understand the biology of autism and design treatments will take a very long time.”

He continues to conduct research into the molecular causes of autism, but about four years ago, he began to view autism as a condition along a spectrum of neurodiversities. He attended the Autism at Work Summit, a conference organized by the German software company SAP, in 2017, where he learned about hiring practices for autistic individuals within the tech industry; it revealed a new way of helping a community that included his son.

“I saw people in these specialized employment programs blossoming at these companies and doing great work,” Fung said. “Without the program, they weren’t ever given a chance. I saw something that could help people like my son build their identity based on their strengths and interests rather than a diagnosis.” In 2018, Fung launched the Stanford Neurodiversity Project to support neurodiverse people at Stanford. Neurodiverse undergraduate students get support from peer mentors trained to give guidance on transitioning to college, living independently, and  interacting with other Stanford students, faculty and staff. Two years ago, Fung launched the Neurodiversity at Work program as part of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project with a grant from Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization. Fung has since held job fairs and the first Stanford Neurodiversity Summit, a virtual event in 2020 attended by more than 3,200 people. (The second one is scheduled for Nov. 7-9. See bottom of story for more information.)

“The Stanford Neurodiversity Project as a whole is about helping to create a culture that understands the value of neurodiversity,” Fung said. “Our Neurodiversity at Work program is not only about social justice. Our goal is to help neurodiverse employees excel at work and employers meet their bottom line.”

The program has several hundred autistic candidates in its job registry and 10 employers in a variety of fields. In addition, Fung is training managers at companies such as Google and DPR Construction on starting their own specialized employment programs to hire individuals on the autism spectrum. So far, the Stanford program has placed about a dozen candidates in a variety of fields, including technology, construction, architecture, marketing and retail. (Currently, the registry accepts candidates diagnosed with autism who have an IQ greater than 59 and can work independently.)

“Our training talks about what neurodiversity can bring to the company,” Fung said, adding that many of the traits common to those on the autism spectrum — attention to detail, persistence, ability to hyperfocus — can be useful in the workplace. “We also discuss how diversity is important to the workplace, and that the neurodiverse population has a lot to give on many levels.”

A little training can make a big difference

Edwards, who learned about Neurodiversity at Work from a counselor, landed a job that she was qualified for, that matched her skill sets and that was in her field of interest — lab science. In turn, her supervisor, Javier Fernandez-Alcudia, PhD, found a talented, reliable employee.

“When I first met Rebecca, she was a bit shy,” said Fernandez-Alcudia, director of the Neuroscience Gene Vector and Virus Core at the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford. “During the interview she didn’t really make eye contact.” Now, two years later, Edwards chats with her co-workers and greets everyone every morning, thriving in the lab where she helps develop the viruses that are distributed for neurobiological research, he said.

“She’s a smart young woman and an incredible employee,” Fernandez-Alcudia said. “We hope to keep her.” 

Fernandez-Alcudia, who interviewed and hired Edwards, received neurodiversity training from Fung that included tips on the hiring process. Edwards also received support from Fung and members of his group.

“Our approach is to make sure the managers know how to work with these individuals and to have a plan before an employee starts,” Fung said. In addition to preparing employers for interviews with autistic candidates, he helps them discuss accommodations that candidates need to do the best job they can. 

“Often these accommodations come way too late,” Fung said. “They should be put in place day one of employment, so the employee doesn’t have to ask for changes after things aren’t working out. You don’t want an employee using 90% of their energy just trying to fit in and look like everybody else. You want to make sure 100% of their energy is used to do a good job.”

For example, he said, an employer doesn’t want to place someone with sound sensitivities, a common trait among autistic individuals, next to the copy machine. For Edwards, that meant talking about her own sound sensitivity with her co-workers and asking that the timer buzzers in the lab are turned off as quickly as possible. 

As one of the program’s success stories, Edwards applauds its efforts and believes it can benefit many others like her. She’s working 20 hours a week while taking a night course in trigonometry so she can complete her four-year college degree. When she was hired, she talked about her goals with Fernandez-Alcudia, who encouraged her to earn a bachelor’s degree so she can advance in the field that she loves.

“The program gives neurodiverse people a chance that maybe otherwise they wouldn’t get,” she said. 

The Neurodiversity Project is expecting more than 4,000 participants for its 2021 Stanford Neurodiversity Summit to be held Nov. 7-9. Registration is free. Speakers will include Temple Grandin, PhD, a prominent author, speaker on autism and advocate for people on the spectrum.

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

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