At their 2024 Winter Policy Conference in early February, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture encouraged USDA, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to “immediately collaborate on a strategy to secure the labor force and ensure the success of the nation’s agricultural industry.”

They were speaking with more of an eye toward utilizing migrant labor, but there’s a large, mostly untapped source of labor readily available here in the U.S. if employers are willing to give them a chance. Those laborers are autistic people.*

In a presentation about how to leverage your strengths and theirs in the workplace at the most recent Great Lakes Expo, Laurel Hoekman, CFLE/CETS, founder of Social Incites, said everyone needs to “look at both sides of the coin” – since growers are also an untapped employer pool.

Social Incites provides coaching and consulting to help individuals assess and achieve their goals and utilize their strengths while overcoming or compensating for their challenges.

First, Hoekman asked what most employers are seeking in employees. Generally, they need to have good attendance, be willing and able to learn and work well as team players. “People with autism can be all of these,” she said.

According to the CDC, approximately one out of every 36 Americans is somewhere on the autism spectrum. This may mean they have differences in the way they communicate (missing nonverbal cues, interpreting things literally, having difficulty asking/answering questions or simply “echoing” statements or instructions).

Autistic people may exhibit social differences, missing social cues, having difficulty “fitting in” or preferring to work alone. They may have sensory differences, becoming overwhelmed in certain environments or by certain stimuli and/or avoiding some inputs/eye contact.

“Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication,” Hoekman said, defining it. The disorder can also include limited and repetitive patterns of behavior.

The term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Autism is here,” Hoekman continued. “You may already be employing someone with autism. A different kind of brain wiring isn’t necessarily a disability.”

One of the biggest perceived issues is that much of the burden for successful communication is on those without autism, but employers can do a lot of things to make it easier:

• Remember that everyone has expectations. “We need to make sure we all define our expectations. Things often fall apart when we fail to do so clearly,” Hoekman said.

• There are multiple ways to achieve those expectations. Minor accommodations can create better employees – think of noise-cancelling headphones, assigning slower or fewer tasks, creating task lists and schedules, offering small incentives for staying on task or allowing breaks from overwhelming stimuli.

• Remember there are consequences to actions. “Often, very simple strategies bring the biggest results, and any strategies you implement will likely benefit all employees – and your overall success,” Hoekman said.

She added that it helps to be willing to “think outside the box,” as the way you were taught to do something isn’t always the only way – or necessarily the best way.

If you’re interested in giving autistic employees a chance, there are several resources for finding them, starting simply with word of mouth. Look into local autism and Down syndrome associations and high schools and colleges as well.

*Editor’s note: Per the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terms such as “autistic,” “autistic person” or “autistic individual” rather than “person with autism.”

by Courtney Llewellyn