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The new North Carolina program is meant to assist neurodivergent state employees in achieving professional goals, offering free career coaching and other services.
For people with autism, dealing with supervisors, applying for promotions, even navigating everyday workplace interactions can be fraught with anxiety.
Take the interview process. “Interviews are a social contest in many respects,” said Mindy Govan, transition and employment services director for the Autism Society of North Carolina. “If you have a social and communication deficit, you might not do so well. That’s why individuals with autism often get passed over.”
North Carolina is hoping to change that. The state launched a pilot program last week that aims to help public employees with autism succeed at work and achieve their professional goals by providing them with free career coaching and other services.
The initiative is called the North Carolina Career Advancement Resources for State Employees on the Spectrum and it is part of a broader state effort, outlined in an executive order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2019, to hire more employees with disabilities.
“North Carolina’s workforce is made stronger by its diversity, and our talented employees on the autism spectrum offer valuable skills and perspectives,” the Democratic governor said in a statement announcing the initiative in April 2022. “This innovative program will help us support and retain these employees and better serve our state.”
North Carolina has struggled in recent years with labor shortages; hiring people with disabilities can help fill those gaps. The state employs about 80,000 people.
“Like every state, we’re seeing turnover and a shortage in the workforce,’’ said Kristin Siemek, talent acquisition manager with the state’s human resources department. “People with disabilities bring a unique perspective and only make our workforce stronger.”
The overwhelming majority of people with autism—between 80% and 90%—are unemployed or underemployed, said Mike Chapman, director of employment services for the TEACCH Autism Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For decades, neurodivergent adults often languished in jobs they were overqualified for, with little opportunity for advancement.
“The way we promote ourselves at work is not only through the work we produce but through the social game,’’ Chapman said. “People who play the game really well are the ones who get the job and move up and that typically is not neurodivergent individuals."
Some private sector employees have been recruiting and supporting employees with autism for years. Microsoft, for example, holds special hiring events for neurodivergent job candidates and provides them with mentors once they are hired.
How it Works
North Carolina’s pilot program offers state employees with autism spectrum disorder with up to five hours of one-on-one career coaching per year through the state’s partnership with two nonprofit agencies, the TEACCH Autism Program and the Autism Society of North Carolina. Advocates see it as a tool to help the state attract and retain workers.
“We’re here to provide support and help people advance in their careers,’’ Govan said. “A little support can have a huge impact.”
The career coaches act as “interpreters between two cultures,’’ she said. “They’re here to provide support and help an individual with autism deal with any hiccups before they become an issue.”
The sessions are designed to help neurodivergent employees master the job interview, develop career goals and hone their interpersonal and management skills to be more effective with supervisors and colleagues.
In order to participate, employees have to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and fill out an online request form on the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources website.
That requires disclosing the diagnosis, a step not everyone is comfortable taking, even though employers are required by law to keep such information confidential. Chapman noted that it’s a personal decision, and employees who receive career services through the program won’t be identified to their supervisors.
The one-year pilot program was launched on July 1 with a modest $10,000 budget.
“But we will ask for more if we need more and hopefully, grow the program as we assess what the needs are,’’ Siemek said.
Daniela Altimari is a reporter for Route Fifty.