The following article by Mona Shan appeared on the Harry Specters website and has been reprinted with kind permission. A previous article on Harry Specters can be read here, Harry Specters creates jobs for individuals with autism.
Recently, an MBA student asked us a simple question as part of his project. “Why do more companies not employ people with autism?” The question is obviously one for other companies to answer, but we couldn’t just say “ask them!” It was another way of asking us “How is it that you are able to create employment for people with autism while others can’t?”
Harry Specters was born by combining “a love for chocolates” and “a passion for creating jobs for people with autism”. The passion for creating jobs is natural – we have a son with autism. This passion drives the need to look at people with autism a bit differently. And when you do that, magic happens! The magic uncovers the untapped, under-utilised and un-nurtured skills that people with autism have. We are very proud of the fact that during the past two years, one of our biggest successes is to be able to create a supportive environment for young people with autism. We have worked with over 40 young people to date, and as a result we have a good idea of what skills they possess. We are not experts in the field of autism and are in the process of looking for experts who can further investigate this and make their findings available to other enterprises.
So what are the skills and characteristics that we have come to love and that makes them amazing workers
Great attention to detail. When it comes to chocolates, they are naturals for quality checks. They will notice the slightest scratch on a chocolate and the smallest fault in packaging. And they are not afraid to shout about!
Follow instructions Our factory rules are strict when it comes to hygiene. We explain these rules just once, or twice in some cases, and they observe the rules exceptionally well. For example, wearing uniforms, hairnets and gloves, and of course, washing hands before starting a new task in the factory or in a packaging area.
Zero level of hypocrisy. This one is more interesting than the previous two. They will always tell you things exactly the way they see it. Diplomacy is not their strong point and they do not mince words. If they come in and don’t feel like talking, they will tell us that. I remember one young man who tried one of our fruity chocolates and said that it was the worst thing he had ever tasted! His teaching assistant later told us that he does not like fruits. We found it very refreshing and quite funny, because the majority of people would not have been so honest about it. We are so conscious of social norms and etiquettes that we are hesitant to give honest feedback. This extends to their natural ability to say ‘no’ if they do not want to do any task. They will be honest about why they have said no, without worrying about whether this will have any negative effect on their future prospects within the company.
They do not engage in workplace politics. We have never experienced anything related to this in our small workplace. I believe they do not have any concept of politics etc. They struggle to understand the logic of “power” and its potential advantages for personal gains.
Most love social interaction. Even though they struggle with social skills, most of the people working with us love social interaction. However, like their mainstream peers, they retreat into their comfort zone if they fail to connect with someone. Sadly, this is mainly because we fail to understand their way of interaction, which is slightly different. They are more spontaneous, direct, and, at times, out of context. And what is wrong with that? Only because this is slightly out of line with our “social norms” we perceive this as unacceptable or odd. Personally, we just let them be themselves – chatting away, jumping from one topic to the next without any clear connection (at least in our mind)! At times, we have to step in and tell them to stop chatting and get on with their work while packaging chocolates. And at other times we encourage them to interact, knowing this is the only place, outside their home, where they feel comfortable enough to be themselves. In fact, feedback from some of the young people working with us, is that they want more people in the factory in order to have more social interaction. Like us, people with autism can be either introverts or extroverts or somewhere in between. In general, they love to interact, show keen interest in other people and their interests and love asking questions. As a result, they can work very well in a team.