Is Autism Employment Improving? with Michael Bernick | EDB 205


“Autism Job Club” author and AASCEND board member Michael Bernick discusses autism employment

(VIDEO – 28 minutes) Michael S. Bernick is an attorney practicing in the area of employment and labor law. In recent years, he has worked with some of the nation’s major employers, staffing companies and industry associations. He is a regular contributor to Forbes Magazine, the author of “The Autism Job Club” and a board member of AASCEND – the Autism Asperger Spectrum Coalition for Education, Networking and Development. Mr. Bernick previously served for nearly five years as director of the California Employment Development Department (EDD), the 10,000-person state department of labor.

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Welcoming back Michael Bernick

HACKIE REITMAN (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of “Exploring Different Brains” and today we have one of my heroes coming. He’s here all the way from San Francisco. Michael Bernick. He’s on the board of AASCEND which he’s going to tell you about. He’s like a Harvard-trained attorney, Duane Morris. He’s the former director of labor and employment for the State of California and he’s so many more things. Mike Bernick, welcome to Different Brains.

MICHAEL BERNICK (MB): Welcome Hackie, but you make me sound like a big macher.

HR: Oh, you are, I left out you’re an author, and you do so many things. Tell us all the things that you’re doing because my audience wants to know, it won’t mean that you’re not humble. Just tell us.

MB: Well Hackie, I have been in the employment field for about 40 years and have been head of our employment department here in California, and currently I’m with the law firm, international law firm, of the Duane Morris. I’m in our San Francisco office, but I think most relevant for our ends today, for the past 15 years I’ve been very involved with autism employment. I’ve been with our community now for nearly 30 years, my wife Donna and I. And the last 5-15 with AASCEND, in particular, AASCEND is our adults on the spectrum, family members, advocates, our extra governmental or volunteer group here in Northern California, and I came to AASCEND in 2011 when my son William was finishing up at Cal State East Bay. And we were looking around for some adult group and there really wasn’t much, but I sort of stumbled onto AASCEND. They were meeting in a small classroom at Downtown City College, and I said to myself, “I’m finally home. I’ve finally come home.” So, I’ve been very active over the past 8 years and we have various employment initiatives, housing initiatives, public safety initiatives, mental health initiatives. We have a number of initiatives that we work on together and try to put together specific initiatives for our members and others.

HR: Why don’t you give our Different Brains audience the state of the union now, in employment for the autistic individual.

MB: Well, I did a book back in 2015 with Richard Holden called The Autism Job Club, that looked at the current state then, in terms of what employment was like for our community and what were various initiatives. I would say that book is completely out of date now. There is so much going on. I’m now doing the follow-up, I wouldn’t call it a sequel, but a follow-up called The Autism City and you know, takes it forward into time and looks to the future for employment, but I say there are two important crosscurrents Hackie. One is just in the past five years there’s really been an explosion in terms of initiatives. There are the initiatives with the big firms that I know you’ve discussed in previous interviews, whether it’s the autism at work group of employers or others. There’s been an explosion in terms of workforce intermediaries. Groups like Neurodiversity Pathways, groups like Integrate, groups like Evil Libra. People who work with our members to try to get jobs, who are sort of intermediaries between employers and people in our community. To both place and retain jobs and then I’d say there’s also been of course the explosion in terms of individual businesses and individual sort of a family initiatives. Now saying all that, even with this explosion, the numbers are still very sobering. I don’t think we really have any good numbers, I would say in terms of employment for adults in our community. I’d roughly say, I know what the Drexel survey is, and it probably still is the best one we have, even though it focuses on only a part of our community. I would still say that just from my experience with this end, that roughly two-thirds to 70%, but certainly two-thirds, of adults in our community either don’t have steady jobs or have jobs that are less than 25 hours a week. So, we still have a long way Hackie to go.

HR: Well you’re a champion and you’re leading the way in so many ways. Now let’s give some advice to her audience. Let’s say, I’m a parent of a neurodiverse individual. Let’s say for instance high-functioning, okay, and then later on we’ll take, you know, the spectrums of big place and there’s a lot of different things. In fact, let me start in reverse order. So now we interviewed Tomas D’Eri who was, he and his family started the Rising Tide Car Wash where they take my car and they do a great job, and it’s all autistic individuals who love what they’re doing and they do a great job, they got good livelihoods going there and he’s made an entrepreneurial model out of it for those of us who’d like to invest in the real estate package with a car wash, all autistic individuals. Let’s talk about the job market for that portion of the spectrum.

MB: Yes, I would say there are three things. One, if someone is on the spectrum there or has a family member, there are lot of good intermediaries for placing people here in San Francisco, we have The Arc, Best Buddies, Tool Works, but these are groups in the community that are specifically charged, the Pomeroy Center, specifically charged with placing adults who are more severely impacted in to jobs and their jobs at Safeway, into competitive employment. Safeway Amazon has been a good employer of our community. First thing I’d say to everyone, high-functioning or low-functioning, is don’t do it alone, do not try to do it alone. There’s a whole network of groups out there to help our community. There are public resources that are available at no cost and either going to directly to agencies like Arc or Pomeroy Center. Each of our communities have different agencies. But either going directly to these or going through the relevant state, either the department here in California, it’s called the Department of Rehabilitation or Department of Developmental Services, but that’s, they are, they got a core mission of placing people who are more severely impacted into jobs do not try to do it alone. No reason to. So, Hackie that’s my main thing.

HR: Well, that’s great advice, great advice.

MB: It’s great what Tom is doing with Rising tide car wash, it’s great some of these other entrepreneurial initiatives as I say there’s been explosion in them, but it’s still very difficult to do on your own and to get in and especially for the more severely impacted. Now there are opportunities in competitive employment, but I would say Hackie, that there are two other forms that I think we as a community need to look at. One is to expand public service employment. We really haven’t had any, but you could imagine forms of public service employment for the more severely impacted and these could be you know park maintenance or park beautification projects, and we’re trying that on a small scale. Dr. Vismara and I have a project with a long-term cure industry to try to place some of our people in Long-Term Cure Homes. Long-term care facilities out here in California have a great need for workers. They can’t find workers. So, we’re working with them. I think even, I know it’s a very controversial issue in our community Hackie, but these congregate workshops, we used to call shelter workshops. In my view they do have a place and we may need to, or we do need to develop new forms of congregate workshops, but we’ve got, I think there’s a place of that type of workshop in our community.

HR: Expand that to our audience who may not be familiar with that.

MB: Well for many years we’ve had these sheltered workshops. And by what, I mean as sheltered workshops, we have very, very good ones out here in California. Pride Industries is our largest up here in Sacramento. The Arc used to have one, and they put people to work, setting to do a lot of basic things, but basic things that needed to be done.

HR: So, would our Arc Broward here, with that response in Arch Broward, would they have the license program where they make license plates. Would that be one?

MB: That could be an example, what’s happened of course nationally and, in California, but nationally there’s has been a push against us, saying that you can’t have congregate workshops like this and you can’t have congregate workshops that pay below minimum wage and so a lot of them have closed down. The Ark here is closed down. Pride has continued but a lot of them are closed down. And the theory has been this isn’t fair employment to our community and we need to move people into competitive or integrated settings. Hey everyone, likes that Hackie except, it just hasn’t turned up be realistic, so it’s not that people are leaving the congregate workshops and moving into competitive employment, a lot of cases are leaving, the congregate workshops are closing down and they got no place to go. So, I don’t think it’s the only solution, but I think as well as, there’s really the three things, one if you can get into competitive employment, great, and working with the network of providers to be placed. Two, I think we need to look at new forms of public service employment. And three, we need to look at new forms of congregate workshops, but not eliminate the idea.

HR: Let’s move now to the high functioning individuals, okay. Tell us from your point of view about that.

MB: Well it’s frankly easier, but not that easy. Still very, very tough and there are really, again, I’d say two main dynamics. One, there these various initiatives in large firms, Microsoft, we’re all familiar with Microsoft, SAP, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and those are good, they’re growing, they are still relatively modest in size. Nationwide I’d said they still have less than a 1000-1500 people combined, so they’re very small still, but what is promising is, within these large companies you have family members who are really the big pushes behind them, so as we, the demographics Hackie are in our favors, there are more family members in large firms, they’re the ones who really are the initiators of these projects, but the number of these remain pretty small and then there are four more numerous are the initiatives with just the range of firms to place our people into jobs, and again someone with the high-functioning, it’s the same dynamic which is, you got it, don’t do it alone go to, there’s a whole network of the public agencies and governmental agencies again in each state has its own Department, equivalent of the Department of Rehab and equivalent of the Department of Developmental Services. You got to reach out to those people.

HR: And some of the not for profits and profits who specifically not only get the job, but then help the employer on the other side with the accommodations.

MB: All the good people do the second part too, the retention, because a lot of our people, a lot of our community to get jobs they lose them for a hundred reasons.

HR: And José Velasco who is the global leader for SAP, when I was on the transitions panel with him, he straightened me out on something on this point. He said you know Hackie, for us this is not a social welfare program, this improves our bottom line. When you get the right person, who’s going to focus on that computer for the right job in quality control or whatever it is, it’s better for the company and the company does better.

MB: Yeah, I think we have a strong argument to make Hackie, on the competitive advantage for main members in our community but I point out the converse, which is I don’t think we want to make it entirely an argument on that. I think there’s also a social value at putting our community to work.

HR: Absolutely.

MB: Even if it makes some, requires some other flexibility, some greater patience, some other resources.

HR: What do you see as the biggest challenge going forward on the jobs for the autistic individual? Listen I know you’ve done, you’re writing books, you’re heading up organizations, you’re fighting 24/7 on this these issues. Tell us where to go now in the future.

MB: I think there are really four elements Hackie. One, as a community we do have to get smart in terms of the job search process. And that would be issue one. So, on individual basis, each of us as individuals, family members need to improve the job search in particularly again back to this point connecting to the public resources available, not trying to do it on your own. So that’s his job search. Issue two I think as a community we’ve got to expand the initiatives within employers, particularly major employers. What we have so far with autism at work is a good start, but again numbers across all of these firms are very modest, so I think as we each work and many of us work in different settings or place settings, how we can within a workplace, advocate for more targeted hiring, a greater change frankly in the workplace culture which will benefit everyone in terms of greater flexibility and patience. I think three, we do need to look at new forms.

Hackie I’ve called the neurodiversity workforce brigades, new forms of public service employment that is direct job creations. Our people who may not be able to find jobs in the private sector can be employed at least for a time in public sector activities and we have a little bit of this now through what are known as our paid internship program out here in California it’s about 20 million years and for people who are clients was known as Regional Center Department of development services their wages are 100% covered up to $10,200 a year. So that’s a start. And finally, we need to get new forms of what we might call craft workshops, new forms of traditional sheltered workshops not in their old form but in some updated form, but not eliminate it.

HR: So where can somebody find all of these employment resources. Is there any place where it’s under one roof, where you can look at, look for all these employment resources?

MB: Well it’s really is state-by-state in locality-by-locality. Obviously, the Autism Speaks website is an excellent aggregator of information on this as on other things. The Stanford University Project also is an aggregator for services particularly ones out here in California. So, there are a few national and state aggregators, but it really is a matter of looking locally in terms of who are the providers and registering with the equivalent of the State Department of Rehab and especially with the equivalent of what’s known as, out here is a state Department of Developmental Services is basically goes by different names, either ways but providing services to people in our community.

HR: What’s one thing you might want to tell employers who might be reluctant to hire someone on the autism spectrum?

MB: I think if they look at the experience of other employers over the past 10 years, members of our community, in general, tend to be more focused, more appreciative of the job, more loyal to the job, and bring certain skill to the job that make them not only as good but better employees, especially if they are given some time to get used to the environment and a certain patience and flexibility.

HR: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we have not spoken about?

MB: Yes, there are a couple things within our community, things that we’re doing out here in California. Obviously, employment is our main focus, because like for everyone else our job is a key thing and public safety, that we covered is important and we have a number of initiatives on that especially following the Costco shooting. But two other areas I’d highlight. Housing. A number of initiatives, our friend Cathy Gott, who you know, down in LA, has a housing initiative there, obviously, all of us many of us, or many of us in the community ask you know concern, worried about what will happen when I’m gone. What are the housing options available, safe housing options and Denise Resnick over in Arizona has her program which is excellent.

A number of individual ones here, we have Sweetwater Spectrum which is in Sonoma. So, we have individual initiatives and housing but that’s another area where we see more and more individual initiatives but we haven’t really hit scale and how we build safe housing options is going to be key in the next couple years in the 4th area I would say there’s employment, there’s public safety, there’s housing and of course the other area we need to do a lot more as mental health because so many people in our community have comorbidities and the comorbidities in some ways actually inhibit behavior more than the so-called autism. Those are the four.

HR: Well that gets into why we started, was because none of this occurs in isolation you can’t have autism without some degree of anxiety a little bit of depression, and then you get into all these other neurodiversities, they all kind of merge and all the same tools work for all of them and whether one has Down syndrome or Autism or you name it, they got to get a job. That’s where the rubber meets the road in so many ways.

MB: That really is the first principle we should keep coming back to, there should be a place in the job market for everyone in our community that wants to work. That should be our starting point.

HR: And I think that your idea for the public works in that workforce, listen, that’s what the Franklin Delano Roosevelt did back in the depression, you know, you got to get the people working, everybody, people with disabilities, people with Spectrum disorders, and all of us.

MB: And obviously the past couple weeks with the coronavirus, as we take this has thrown off our economy and, but I think again a targeted program could work targeted to people with autism or other developmental differences and I think something we need to come back to us soon as frankly, as the economy snaps out of this which will hopefully be sometime soon.

HR: Now you’ve mentioned the coronavirus days that we’re in the middle of as we film this. You’re a family man. Tell us what advice you have for the families with those of us who’s brains are a little different, at this particular coronavirus time in our history.

MB: Well it is tough for all of us, and I think especially in some ways for our members in our community here in California, basically all the economy has been shut down, all businesses have been shut down, and movies have been shut down, all entertainment has been shut down, so they don’t even really want you to go outside but you can still, thankfully. And, so we have a challenge of how to keep people active and busy. I’m pleased to say Hackie, that there’s several developments. The Pomeroy Center for example has established a number of virtual social connections, in terms of people being able to, not being so isolated, being able to connect, educational programs are ongoing virtually. These are no substitute but at least within our community there’s a strong attempt to keep going, keep some of the same services whether it be educational or other social services or just you know social connections going virtually and I mentioned Pomeroy Ark is doing the same of our providers.

HR: Well that’s great. We here at different brains, for our interns we’re increasing our internal webinars, if you will. And it’s again ironic because we were emphasizing the importance of “Get out of that room”, “Get off the computer”, “Come on and meet people, be with people, let’s make some media, let’s film something, let’s make a movie, write a book”. And now everybody is back at home.

MB: I know, it’s not good. All I can hope is that this will be lifted sometime in the next month or 45 days.

HR: Let’s hope so, and let’s hope by the time anyone sees us, they’ll go, “Oh boy, those are must be two old farts, because that was like nothing” Let’s go.

 MB: [Laughs].

HR: Mike if people want to learn more about autism employment and the things you have going on, what’s a good resource for them? Where could they find out more about you and your work?

MB: I think two things. One, they can google me, and I have an address, you know I’m with the law firm. I welcome getting emails directly from people who have questions. But also, our group here in Northern California AASCEND which is is a very good starting point.

HR: And may I please mention your lovely wife who is the wonderful and brilliant author, Donna. And Donna Levin let me tell you, she can write she’s good. What’s her latest work?

 MB: Well she has a couple novels about in the past 5 years, There’s More Than One Way Home, and He Could Be Another Bill Gates, so if anyone who is interested type in Donna Levin, into Amazon or anywhere else or into her Wikipedia page, they will come up. That’s generous of you to ask.

HR: Well Michael Bernick, it’s been a pleasure to have you here again at Different Brains. Thank you so much.

MB: Thank you.