DETROIT — The Autism Alliance of Michigan is setting an ambitious goal to address the employment needs of state residents on the autism spectrum — to create 101,000 jobs across the state within 10 years.

The Bingham Farms-based nonprofit launched what it calls its “moonshot” goal during a virtual gala this month, a plan that comes as the nonprofit winds down the celebration of its 10-year anniversary.

“It has to be about jobs,” said Colleen Allen, president and CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan. “A job is really the end goal for most individuals. As sort of our overarching true north, let’s put out a really bold, audacious goal for the organization. It’s really a goal for our state.”

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Allen says that while it’s difficult to tally the autism population, the need for employment is great. The nonprofit arrived at the 101,000 job figure by calculating Michigan’s population, instances of autism, those likely to be working age and the rate of employment.

It has long been a challenge for people with developmental disabilities to find employment. The nonprofit estimates that in Michigan the unemployment rate for individuals with autism spectrum disorder is 75-90%.

And that lack of employment opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities is felt across the country, according to the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities.

The Autism Alliance of Michigan, also known as AAoM, has placed 250 people into jobs through its Abound at Work program, and there are more than 800 clients in its database currently seeking work, Allen said. The program works with employer partners, recruits for positions and supports individuals on the job.

Through its newest initiative the nonprofit will ask small and large employers to open their doors to hiring people with disabilities, Allen said: “We’re going to need employer engagement and commitment, and then we’re going to need to work with disability agencies across the state to create a pool of qualified candidates.”

Dave Meador, chairman of the group’s board of directors, said the effort could be broken down by sectors such as the automotive, banking, energy and health care industries.

Meador, also DTE Energy’s vice chairman and chief administrative officer, said for the past four years his company has hired individuals with autism through an employment initiative. Meador’s daughter, Belle, 23, is on the autism spectrum.

“It’s important for DTE Energy to do this,” he said. “I can’t ask others to do this if we’re not doing this.” That helps: AAoM has a partnership with Ford Motor Co., and Kroger Co. also hires employees with autism.

“Once you introduce people with autism into the workplace it generates a culture that sort of grows from a grassroot level,” Allen said, adding that once a partnership is established with an employer there should be access to all positions.

“We know we have a spectrum of ability, talent and interest,” she said. “We want to be able to make a good match based on what could potentially be available through that employer.”

Client Leon Cason, 26, of Mount Clemens began a part-time job last month in housekeeping at Gardner-White Furniture. It’s a position he found through AAoM.

“Basically I wipe down the tables and the furniture and make sure everything is sparkly clean,” Cason said. “So far so good … The employees are great. I like the staff members there. They seem pretty nice. That’s the best part about the job.”

Leon’s parents, Henry and Regina Cason, said they value the services they’ve received from AAoM.

“He needs independence,” Regina Cason said. “He needs to be able to provide for himself and AAoM, that’s what they are trying to do. Twenty hours is not a lot. I know he can’t live independently on that, but that’s OK. It’s an income and it’s an income that he’s working for and that’s what we were looking for. Something that he could call his own.”

Meador said that even with connections through his business and community work it took him four years to find paid, part-time work for his daughter. She’s had jobs at English Gardens and Strategic Staffing Solutions.

“I don’t know how the average adult says, ‘I want to get my now adult child employed,’ how they do that,” he said. “The nonprofits that work in this area, they do good work, but the numbers are very low scale.”

Despite the pandemic Meador said the work has to continue amid an overall higher unemployment rate: “This has had a very significant impact on the autism community and other communities of need. It’s harder in a higher unemployment environment, but that will change too.

“We’re not giving up. You need long-term goals and have the courage to stick to it because sometimes it takes time.”

© 2020 The Detroit News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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