By Jo Ann Hudec, Manager, Columbus Consulting
The month of April recognizes the impact Autism has on our communities and reminds us to be more aware and inclusive in our efforts to expand opportunities for everyone, especially those who have been affected by Autism. Autism or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. It affects an estimated 1 in 36 children in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While not everyone with ASD is inflicted to the same degree, nearly 90% (worldwide) of this population is either unemployed or under employed. Herein lies the real issue with supporting this very large element of our communities.
RETAIL LEADING BY EXAMPLE
The retail industry who, according to IBIS World, employs approximately 20.3 million people in the US (as of 2023), is perhaps in the best position to help address the ASD employment challenges. And some retailers are doing just that. Companies like Walgreens are pioneers in this space and employ a high number of individuals with Autism and other disabilities. The key to integrating these populations into rewarding positions and ensuring successful outcomes is based on training. Walgreens created a transitional work group program and launched their model at one distribution center in Anderson SC. When the center became the most productive in the chain, Walgreens expanded their pilot program to now 12 distribution centers, employing more than 1,000 people with disabilities and boasting a 75% training to hire rate.
But not all career paths for ASD employees need to be defined by major retailers. Many individuals and families of individuals with autism are paving their own way. With the birth of digitally native platforms and owner-operator business models, more and more ASD entrepreneurs are creating their own retail space. Brands like: John’s Crazy Socks, Novel-Tees, Paper Clouds Apparel, and Spectrum Designs are founded by and run by professionals with Autism. A more comprehensive list of similar brands can be found at:
In addition to apparel, you can support this community by shopping a variety of categories and commodities such as: coffee, sweets, candles and more. Even technology and app companies are emerging in this space as the ASD community expands their own empowerment into various industries.
DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION APPLIES TO ALL
Like any DEI initiative, all companies should seek to approach their businesses with a wider net. For both employees and customers. Recognizing that all populations have value to offer is the first step in shifting the paradigm on how we approach the workforce. Looking at individuals as resources and not obstacles is a necessary pivot; followed by devising methods to ensure that everyone has a chance to succeed based on their own efforts and work ethic. Training is key as is acknowledging that there are degrees and nuances within the spectrum. While some disabilities present physical challenges, other may present emotional, sensory or social challenges, indeed, there is no one size for all when it comes to human resources. Looking to successful companies, like Walgreens, who learned how to optimize individual contributions is a best in class approach, especially as the retailer and hospitality industries continue to struggle with turnover and labor needs.
BE PART OF THE SOLUTION
On the individual responsibility side, education is key. While all segments of our global population want a fair opportunity to succeed, ensuring one’s own success is based on knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what you can contribute will especially help individuals with ASD focus on finding employment, as is knowing where to find assistance to strengthen existing skills or develop new ones. Locating and assessing resources may not always be easy, but groups like havedreams.org have been serving the Autism community since 1996 and more are surfacing.
There is no roadmap for every one and every company. But when we, as a community, approach the labor and employment challenges from both sides and seek a common goal of leveraging individuals regardless of disability, we can make an impact. Companies like Walgreens are not only supporting under/non employed job candidates, they are building a path of both financial success and individual contribution. Building awareness of the challenge, working together to explore solutions, educating our communities and leading by example is how we win as a retail industry and as collective member of humanity.
ABOUT JO ANN HUDEC
Jo Ann is an operations professional at Columbus Consulting serving all aspects of the retail consulting firm, including holding a seat on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. She has over 22+years of professional experience and is the parent to a child with Autism. Her personal experiences propelled her to become active in the ASD community and to secure a certification for Diversity and Inclusion at Cornell University. Jo Ann leads the DEI training at CCI and is a strong advocate for her son and for all people with different abilities.