Autism and Employment with Michael Bernick | EXPLORING DIFFERENT BRAINS – Episode 05


 

In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman welcomes Michael Bernick, the former director of California’s labor department. Mr. Bernick discusses his book, “The Autism Job Club,” the work he does for the neurodiverse through AASCEND, and the importance of employment for people on the autism spectrum.

To learn more about AASCEND, please visit: www.aascend.org

To learn more about Mr. Bernick’s book, “The Autism Job Club,” please visit: www.autismjobclub.com

 

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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR)

Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman and we’re exploring different brains, and today, we’ve got a pretty cool guy here, we’ve got Michael Bernick, who is the former secretary and director of labor and employment in California, which is about 1/6th of the US population, and the author of The Autism Job Club, and the founder of AASCEND, which he’s going to go into, what that is, and he is really one of the champions of neurodiversity and talking about jobs, which are really at the crux. As Temple Grandin told me out in Tuscan, that’s the main thing. Michael, how are you today?

MICHAEL BERNICK (MB)

Excellent, Hackie, excellent.

HR

Thanks for joining us. Now, look, unlike me, you’re a very educated guy. You went to Harvard; you went to Oxford. What was it like at Oxford?

MB

I enjoyed it, I was–it shows you, Hackie–I spent two years and got my graduate degree in Political Theory. And then have spent most of the past 37 years in law and in employment. So it just shows you that you can never tell, in terms of what you major in and what you do. But that was very good preparation, political theory.

HR

Well, you’ve had quite an education and quite a work experience. You know, in reading about you in Wikipedia and all over the internet, with all the different positions you’ve had, such as with Bart out there and with your previous writings on jobs in general, tell our audience how your overall philosophy on jobs and employment has translated as you’ve entered the world of neurodiversity.

MB

Well, I think it translates well for a couple of reasons. As you pointed out, Hackie, for our neurodiverse community, and particularly for the autism community that I’m involved in–very involved in here in the area. Employment is a number one issue. AASCEND is our adult autism group. Actually, it was founded about 10 years ago. I wasn’t among the founders. I was one of the founders of our job club, but we’ve grown over the years, we work together on a number of issues: housing, issues of socialization, integration into our society, but employment continues to be the main issue.

HR

Tell us how you got into this.

MB

Well, my son, William, the oldest of our four children–my son William was diagnosed as being on the spectrum in 1991 when he was age 2. Now, at that time, like most people, Donna and I had very little knowledge of what autism was. In general, in California, and I think across the United States, if people knew of autism at all, they knew of Rain Man. It was a really different period. Very little information. Now, of course, there has been a sea change. Now you can’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV or go to a movie without some reference to autism. But it was very different then. I first became involved in the autism community through William, and then when he graduated from Cal-State East Bay in late 2012, we were looking at what adult programs and associations there were, and came upon AASCEND. And, Hackie, I remember going–the first AASCEND meeting I went to was actually in late 2011. It was in a small room at a downtown community college building on 4th and Mission here in San Francisco. I can’t ever recall what the issues we discussed that day. There may have been 15 people in attendance, but I left that meeting and I said, after 20 years I’m finally home. I finally have come home. And over the past four years have continued to be very involved with AASCEND, and particularly with the job club.

HR

Now we’ll fast forward. Your son Will, now, I understand he just had a great adventure with 20 other kids, why don’t you tell us about that?

MB

Yes, birthright, which is a group that facilitates trips to Israel for young adults just had a program for adults, specifically for adults on the autism spectrum. He was one of 22 people who spent two weeks in Israel with the birthright group, and it was a very positive experience, Hackie, I think he’ll be writing about it for your blog sometime later this week.

HR

That’s great, we look forward to having him write on Different Brain. You know, you–Michael, in reading about you, you take for granted your unique perspective. You’ve been to the prom in the way government works, so to speak, been to the prom. And I think that one of things you’re doing is doing away with the inadvertent and well-intentioned discrimination against adults in this area. Meaning it was all about the little kids, well guess what? The little kids become adults, and they need education and they need jobs and they need to maximize their independence. So tell us some of the initiatives that you and your wonderful fellow board members at AASCEND are taking in these directions.

MB

Well, you’re exactly right, Hackie, concerning the aging out of the autism population. A lot has been done over the past two decades in terms of K through 12 educations, and far less, in some ways employment is the next frontier, and we do have, at least, demographics in our favor, since–you mention, I do have a new book out called “The Autism Job Club” with Richard Holden, our bureau of labor statistics regional commissioner. It looks at the neurodiverse work force and the new normal of employment, and it really tries to set out strategies for employment, but, Hackie, what’s very interesting is, in 1991, if I mentioned autism, again, people might have some idea. Now, whatever we mention–the book, The Autism Job Club, somebody says, “Oh, I have a niece or a nephew or a neighbor,” so many people have connection, if not direct connection, one degree of separation to our community, and I think that’ll be very helpful in pushing our employment initiative forward. We at least have the demographics on our side.

HR

Let me interrupt to just ask, for those of our listeners and viewers who might be jotting down “The Autism Job Club” by Michael Bernick and Richard Holden, how do they get ahold of it?

MB

Well, um, always book can get it, but I think the most direct way, frankly, is Amazon. It’s at Amazon, they do a good job at Amazon, it’s not less than $20. So I would say the quickest, easiest, least expensive way is Amazon. But, in terms of our initiative, um, there are several. One, as I’ve mentioned, we have a job club. We meet once a month on the first Saturday of the month, but the art building, which is at 11th and Howard if you’re in Downtown San Francisco, it’s completely free, everyone’s invited, and we have no measurement or, if you consider yourself part of the autism community, you’re part of the autism community, whether you’re on the spectrum or not. And everyone’s invited, and we try to have various guest speakers talking about hiring processes, talking from our department of rehabilitation in terms of services available, job coaches come and speak, and then, at the latter part, we work one-to-one. Second, we’ve established an online job club, which is Spectrum Employment Community by AASCEND on LinkedIn, and we try to share information on this LinkedIn site, and third, we try to work with each other to give job leads. I volunteer as a job coach. After almost 40 years, Hackie, I think I’m pretty good, but I try to volunteer as a job coach with our members, just in terms of ideas of how to get jobs and how to retain jobs, how to move up in jobs, all the same issues that we all have in our work life.

HR

You brought up an interesting thing before about the increasing awareness, and now here we are, just entering 2016, and I would say we’re at a new plateau of, at least awareness, about the spectrum. Would you agree with that?

MB

Oh, no question. No question at all, there’s–there’s such greater knowledge, as I say it’s completely in popular culture, the mainstream–there’s a whole literature now, Hackie, called Aut Lit, or autism Lit, on–featuring either characters on the spectrum or situations, so yeah there’s no question that it’s a much–as I say just a sea change in terms of its pop-culture.

HR

Something I wanted to ask you because of your–you know, you’ve had this great experience working in our government back in the days when government was actually doing something constructive and we hope that that’s going to be in 2016, they’ll get back to doing some constructive stuff, but tell us what you feel needs to change in our government now as regards neurodiversity and our different brains.

MB

Well, I think we already have–in most of state government, or most of our states, I think, have active programs. Here in California we have the Department of Rehabilitation, which has, for years had active programs in terms of employment. My old department, the basically labor department, the employment development department, is getting more and more emphasis to so-called workers with disabilities. Now, Hackie, I don’t use that term, but that’s the sort of term that’s used. And, I will say under the new federal legislation, the work force legislation, the workforce innovation and opportunity act, WIOA, which passed last year. There is a much greater emphasis in funding for work–quote “workers with disabilities.” So there is additional money, there’s additional focus as well as the ongoing efforts of the state rehab departments. But there’s still a lot to be done. As I say, employment is really the next frontier in terms of our autism community.

HR

From your point of view, what are some of the things that employers should realize in 2016?

MB

Well, Hackie, you mentioned Temple Grandin, as she famously said: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” so, it is true that every worker in our community is very different, but, in general, the feedback we’ve got from employers include people in our community being, you mentioned, loyalty to the job, I think also there’s some agreement that many of our people have greater attention to detail, a willingness to continue on certain, in some ways, repetitive tasks with craftsmanship and detail, so, you’re right. The case is never made in terms of sort of the right thing to do. It’s always in terms of when we go talk to employers, how can this improve performance, and how can the employer get the best employee, and one who will be loyal and bring this sense of craftsmanship.

HR

Yeah, and certainly one of the big expenses for anyone running a company, any of you employers out there, is the approximate $30,000 in turnover if you have an employee leave and you have to start from scratch with a new employee. And loyalty and honesty are very good trademarks. Of course, we’re all different, all of our brains are different, and that’s something I did not get. When I used to say to Rebecca, “why do you want to tutor as a career, why don’t you teach?” She said, “Dad, you don’t get it. Every brain is like a snowflake, every one is different.” And I did not get it then, but I’m getting it now. Now as I look through this prism of neurodiversity and people I meet, it’s–all of their brains are different, you know, we all are, and that’s just something society needs to understand and embrace for the benefit of all of us and all of society.

MB

Hackie, if I might add, I think, from the other side, in terms of–people say to me, “Well what advice do you give to people in the autism community or neurodiverse community in terms of finding a job?”

HR

I’m glad you brought that up because that is really what our listeners and viewers want to hear. They want specific tools.

MB

Well, let’s start with the first advice I give everyone (and I follow it myself): don’t do it alone. you’re not alone in this, and don’t try to take on the job placement um–task for a son or daughter or neighbor or other family on your own. There’s–the first thing I tell people is #1 get an autism coach. If you can qualify for the department of rehab services, or, what we call out here in California, Regional Center services–a variety of government services. Get someone outside of the family to work with your son or daughter or nephew or niece. I think that outside influence is very important, Hackie, and there are people who specialize in this. It’s a greater and greater specialty among job coaches. Coaches who work with adults with autism to find jobs. Now, what do these coaches do that’s so different? Well, in some ways, they use the same techniques that all of us need to use these days in finding employment. Either full-time employment, or independent contracting or otherwise. First, they look at–you know, they use the job boards but they use them intelligently. The job boards do have some value, especially if you locate the ones particularly for your sector and your geography. But they, as everyone knows, are getting 200 résumés for every position. So you have to use them smartly. It’s also very important these days to just get in the door. If you’re having a difficulty getting a job, if there’s some part-time work you can get with a firm, or independent contracting, or even volunteering. Though, the volunteering needs to be structured. I think highly structured in most cases. But you want to get in the door. That’s the most important thing you can do these days. Get in the door, and the other important thing is, if you can–if you’re looking for a job, when I say use a smart–job board smartly, try to get a referral from someone within that particular firm, because these human resources people will tell you they’re getting 200 résumés for most positions, maybe not all, but they’re getting a lot of résumés. Because of the E’s, the job boards make it so easy to apply for jobs these days. It means that, on the other side, more and more people apply. So, those are some of the techniques, again, getting a job coach, using job boards smartly, getting in the door, getting a referral from someone within a firm, those are techniques, I think, that apply to everyone these days, but, particularly for our community.

HR

Well, those were great specifics. And, for us how does one go about identifying an autism job coach? What are some of the resources for that?

MB

Well I would start–for those who are eligible for department of rehab or regional center out here in California services, I would start there. Otherwise, I’d ask around, it’s the usual way of finding someone good; it’s–so far we don’t have really listings on the website that say autism coach, though you might type it in with the geography. But there are people, as I say I know four or five here in the Bay Area who specialize, and who are very good. They don’t use any magical techniques, they use some of the same techniques, but they know our community and they are able to tailor these job search skills and serve–Hackie, I might add, also service an intermediary with employers so that they sort of walk through the job seeker, through the process, they contact the employers, sometimes they contact employers who may not be listing jobs to try to pitch people, so I strongly, strongly advise that as a starting point.

HR

I remember when you and I were on–trying to help that young lady that I had met out at the World Autism Conferences, his mom, who’s a writer, wanted to help her get a graphic artist position, and you were stressing to them don’t do it alone, don’t try to do it alone, and, many times we parents, I say we, because, just like in my Aspertools book, I kind of make fun of myself, but it’s true where, many times, when we’re the parent, we’re so blinded by love, and, as Rebecca, in her “truth-telling” mode often says to me, “You know, dad, sometimes good intentions are not enough.” And, as you say, bringing in a professional from the outside, or even just a–what I’ll call a dispassionate third-party, to come and look at it, too. Tell us about the specific job Will has at this time.

MB

Well, Will has been working in a law firm, part-time, half time in sort of data entry. It’s been good, but my hope for Will is we can move him, over the next year or two, into a full-time job that’s less project-based. I’m–many people, Hackie, are project-based work, contingent work, you know–You and I grew up in the 50s and 60s when employment was the height of the time of when employment was full-time with benefits. Well, that’s changed a lot, for a lot of reasons. Began to change in the 70s, and has accelerated in the past decade. But, for William, and I think it’s true for other people in our community–autism community and neurodiverse community sometimes stability is much more important, so I’m trying to look at, perhaps entry level jobs in our state government or other government would offer this sort of safe harbor. And I think it’s true for him, and, as I say, I advise it for others. I was talking to one of Will’s friends Alex yesterday, who’s been a part-time professional. He’s a member of AASCEND in our San Francisco unified school district. He’s been trying for a couple of years to get into a full-time job. And I keep advising him, hang with it, it’s very important. It’s certainly worth it, if we can get you in there full-time then you’ve got at least some safe-harbor.

HR

You know, where does entrepreneurial endeavors fit into your scheme of things with employment?

MB

Well I think they’re similar Hackie, but it’s a tough thing to be an entrepreneur, for anybody, and you have to constantly hustle and so forth. So it’s a tougher life. Part–again, for parts of our community, our autism or neurodiverse community, it’s–it can be an opportunity, and certainly the internet economy has opened up even greater opportunities, and my sense is, with different brains, Hackie, maybe there’s something we can do to help entrepreneurs, in other words identify–there’s probably a segment of the population that, particularly would like to get goods and services from people who they know are in our community. So there may be something Different Brains can do to help facilitate entrepreneurship, to help create markets, to help link entrepreneurs on the spectrum with interested customers just like there’re segments of the population who want to buy green products or other types of products.

HR

Sure, like Denise Resnik, out in Arizona, with SMILE biscotti with her son Matt.

MB

That’s something I think Different Brains can help with, in terms of helping create these markets. So I think there’s a role. I think there’s a role for Different brains, Hackie, but it’s also a tougher life, and fortunately, there’s still some safe-harbor jobs, in other words some stability, as in–particularly in government.

HR

Now where do unions fit in at this point in time in the overall economy and, perhaps as it might effect neurodiversity?

MB

Well, you make a good point. To be honest, here in California and at AASCEND we really haven’t tried to connect with the union movement. In a lot of ways, they’d be a natural, in terms of somewhat the stability of employment–but so far both our private sector unions and public sector unions have had–have focused on other issues: obviously income inequality and the so-called declining middle of jobs and other issues, really haven’t taken up issues of autism. But it’s–again it’s something Different Brains might help make that connection.

HR

Now, if people want to get more information about what you’re doing, what’s the best way for them to get in touch?

MB

Well, I’m always available, Hackie–you know, I’ll give my email out or I’m pretty accessible–people can find me easily on the internet. My law firm address, the Cedric Law Firm that’s been–I might say the Cedric Firm, we’re a national firm. I’m in our San Francisco office, it’s a firm that’s been very very supportive of the autism community and the neurodiverse community, but I would say people could contact me directly or through the book website. We have a link–it’s called www.AutismJobClub.com.

HR

And AASCEND, can they get ahold of you through AASCEND also?

MB

Also through AASCEND, so there are a couple of ways, but I try to–you know me, Hackie, I try to get back the same–if anyone contacts me, I try to get back the same day.

HR

Well, you’ve always been wonderful with that, with the people we’ve been in contact with together, and in doing so much. Do you have any other overall message, if there’s one thing you want our viewers and listeners to take away from this, what would that one message be?

MB

Well, I would–I would say you’re not in this alone. That there are both government, and even more so extra-governmental groups. You’ve got to try to reach out to them. There are the services, I think as a community, more generally, we all–whether it’s Different Brains or AASCEND, we need to work together. We can utilize government services but we need to really focus on our extra-governmental, and in other words our associations outside of government. I think it’s true for our community, I think it’s true for a lot of other issues in today’s society, in terms of extra-governmental networks, but certainly in our community, reach out, take advantage of the–utilize the government services that are available, but also reach out and be part of this larger autism community, outside of government, working together.

HR

Great advice. Well, Michael Bernick, out there in Sunny California–

MB

I would say sunny–I’m looking out our window, my law firm is on the 20–30th floor, we have a couple of floors here in downtown San Francisco and now it’s completely–it started sunny, Hackie, now it’s completely overcast and rainy, but–

HR

Well that’s because–that may be because we’re bringing this Exploring Different Brains to a close, you know? The sun went home. But you’ve been a big source of sunshine for the whole neurodiverse community, and I want to thank you for all that you’re doing with AASCEND, with The Autism Job Club, with the law firm, with the–all that you’re doing out there, and, on behalf of everybody, I want to thank you for looking out for all of us whose brains might be a little bit different. So, Michael Bernick, thank you very much.

MB

Thank you, Hackie.

HR

We’ve been speaking with Michael Bernick, author of The Autism Job Club and board member of AASCEND.

 

 

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