Harry Specters – What skills do people with autism have?

P1040793_mediumAble to work under stress. When we started Harry Specters, our biggest fear was that during our peak seasons, our staff would struggle with the extra work, tight deadlines and long hours. It would prove stressful for them and would affect fulfilment of orders. We knew our fear was baseless and untested, but decided that if such a situation came up, we would find a way to handle it without affecting business. Two years have passed since we launched the company, and we never had any issues or had to close our shop or stop taking orders because our brilliant staff couldn’t cope. On the contrary, we found that not only can they take stress, they can take a lot of stress and yet remain calm. This was quite a shocking revelation for us! There are a couple of supporting anecdotes that will better explain what I mean. When we were starting up, I hired an amateur photographer, a young girl with autism, to take product photos for our website. Having a limited budget, we hired a studio for a few hours for the photoshoot. It was my first time getting some real work done by someone with autism and I was stressed even before we started!  This was the critical test – would my idea work in the real world, with someone I didn’t know well. I was stressed and the photographer seemed calm. The clock ticked and the progress was not meeting the timescales I had imagined. I got more stressed, eventually the girl noticed and she turned to me and said, “Don’t worry Miss Stressy-pants, relax and we will finish this job”. And she did exactly that – finished the job to a very high standard. This was her first assignment as a photographer and she handled it very professionally. She was so pleased with the job that she changed the course she was doing at university and started a degree in photography! The second story is when we took a huge order from a company in Germany in February of this year. The order was to make 132,000 truffles in one month or 4,400 truffles a day (including weekends). We only had the capacity to make about 1500 truffles a day! Mention this to anyone in manufacturing and they will laugh and think we were crazy to take on such an order! I had taken the decision and there was no time to second guess the decision. The only option was to look forward. I was very stressed and thought that our staff with autism may not be able to take on such a rapid increase in production and packaging. I was berating myself that I was going to put undue stress on my staff and it would have lasting negative effects. We hired a few short-term staff not on the autism spectrum, to help with the order. Time went by and I noticed that people with autism were the least stressed amongst us! They increased their pace of work to meet the increased demand, came in every day and worked long hours, laughed and chatted away and met daily targets. We completed the order with most of the help coming from people with autism. They helped us deliver this near impossible order! My learning from this project? Never take on such orders again! One month later, one of our staff asked me when we would have a repeat order from the German company! I asked him why and he said he really enjoyed it. This prompted me to ask others how they had felt during this one month and all of them said that they loved it. We were nervous wrecks and they are happy to go through such an order again.

Loyal employees. Employee loyalty has three dimensions: turnover, attendance and organisational citizenship (individual behaviour and support that contributes to the organisational success). It is a major concern for employers. The value of loyal workers has increased because of a) competition for talent and b) the organisations are going flatter with more focus on employee empowerment. I feel very lucky sharing that on all three dimensions, we have zero problems. During busy times, our staff are happy to come on weekends and work for longer hours, not because of the monetary benefit, but because we provide them with the sense of achievement and fulfilment which they crave. They understand the fact that our business would not be able to function without them, and it is their sense of responsibility that makes them such loyal workers. They don’t take days off unless they have a genuine reason, they are punctual, and conscientious in their work. If they do not want to put in long hours, they will say so in advance, so you don’t have last minute absences to deal with – as is the case when dealing with mainstream employees. We have had 5 young people with autism working for us on and off, and all of them want to be with us forever

20150211_113706_mediumDifferent perspective. As most of you know, our Rose & Cardamom chocolate won a three star gold award in 2014. Many people have given us their feedback, commenting on the balance and unique flavour combination. Among all the comments we have received, there is one that really stood out. This young 17 year old was at Harry Specters for his work experience and I happened to give him our Rose & Cardamom chocolate. After eating the chocolate, I asked him what he thought of the taste. He said “It tastes romantic!”. The chocolate is exactly that. No one had thought of it in this way, focusing instead on dissecting the flavours and judging the balance of ingredients. This different perspective also extends to the way they work. While assembling flat-packed boxes, some of our staff will come up with a totally different way of folding the box that eliminates a few steps in the process, making it quicker and more efficient. They question how we do things at times, suggesting a different and, quite often, better way.

People with autism can be very creative. Their creativity in art is very well known. Tim Sharp is a world renowned artist whose work is exhibited in galleries worldwide. There are other examples of great artists. However, our business is chocolate, and in this area we found them to be problem solvers and creative. One of our employees is always keen on discovering new flavours for our chocolates. He bombards us with all sorts of flavour combinations for our ganaches depending on what he has read, seen, or eaten recently. Another young girl has a creative way of packaging chocolates. This creativity is also seen when they decorate moulds for slabs and Easter eggs

They are very It is common knowledge that people with autism like routine and structured tasks. Well most of us do like a structured approach and management gurus preach about developing structures around tasks, projects and operations. We have found that our staff are very natural when it comes to being structured. However, they do need to be told exactly what to do and when, and what are the exact steps that they need to follow. This ties in with skill # 2 of following instructions religiously. From making chocolates to packaging chocolates, there are hundreds of things that need to be done, some are sequential and others could be concurrent – and if you get your processes right, your operations are in the hands of some excellent people.

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