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Sensory Friendly Job Fair paves the way for adults with autism to meet potential employers – Cronkite News

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Photo: Job seekers walk into Rio Salado College Southern in Tempe on April 9 to attend the Sensory Friendly Job Fair, hosted by the Autism Society of Greater Phoenix, the Arizona Department of Economic Security and the college. (Photo by Annika Tourlas/Cronkite News)

A Sensory Friendly Job Fair gave people with autism and autism spectrum disorder the opportunity to meet and be interviewed by more than a dozen potential employers on April 9 in Tempe.

The job fair was hosted by the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the Autism Society of Greater Phoenix and Rio Salado College. Timothy Stump, employer liaison for vocational rehabilitation at the Arizona Department of Economic Security, organized the fair.

“Our mission is to get people with disabilities back to work,” said Stump. “I’ve been doing this kind of work for 20 years.”

Event staff made the environment sensory-friendly by adjusting lighting and staggering arrival times to reduce traffic in the hallways. All meetings with employers took place in private, carpeted rooms to create a quieter and less stimulating atmosphere.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 22.5% of people with disabilities were employed in 2023, the highest rate since data collection began in 2008. Despite steady gains over that period, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities with 7.2% almost twice as large. as high as for people without disabilities.

According to the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, adults with autism are unemployed and underemployed compared to adults with other disabilities. Government agencies and advocacy groups are working to expand opportunities to help increase employment for these people.

When they first arrived at the job fair, employers and job seekers attended a workshop led by Professor James B. Adams of Arizona State University. The information workshop taught employers best hiring practices, including how to provide accommodations to adults with autism. Meanwhile, job seekers received advice on how to find fair and safe work.

More than a dozen employers attended the job fair, including CIA, Marriott, Western Alliance Bank, Medtronic, Walgreens and MOD Pizza. Stump noted that several employers, such as MOD Pizza and the CIA, were attending for the first time. The variety of employers at the event attracted adults with a wide range of interests and goals.

Kathryn Gregory graduated from Arizona State University in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Two years later, Gregory was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which helped her understand why she found it difficult to navigate social situations.

After the pandemic halted her job search, Gregory set her sights on employers where she could use her degree and skills in chemical engineering. Since this was her first job fair, Gregory expected to be in a loud, overwhelming environment, but she was pleasantly surprised.

“Having people who know what to expect is really nice in an unexpected way,” Gregory said. “I grew up with the vague realization that I wasn’t the best at these kinds of experiences. It’s nice to know that there are people here who expect my difficulties and are willing to work with me.”

Stump noted that many job seekers participating in the DES Vocational Rehabilitation Program have difficulty finding work because the application process can be overstimulating and their employment history can be minimal due to their disability. Therefore, understanding an adult’s disability and adjustments, as was done at the fair, can facilitate the process and help them find ideal positions.

Employers and those participating in the vocational rehabilitation program often hear success stories from those who have found employment thanks to their services and guidance. Stump, the father of an adult with a disability, recalled how his son came into his own after finding work.

“The employers are enthusiastic, and the job seekers are enthusiastic. And the moms and dads are excited,” Stump said. “As a father of someone with a disability, I know how much it changes them and how much confidence they suddenly gain when they start working.”

Employers also noted how they benefit from hiring adults with autism and other disabilities. Employers like MOD Pizza offered accommodations for the interview process and expressed their willingness to make further adjustments in the workplace.

Cay Hazel, the general manager of MOD Pizza Tempe Marketplace, has an employee who comes from the company’s partnership with Best Buddies International. Hazel realized that working at MOD Pizza brought the man out of his shell, so much so that he now sings out loud to customers while he works. He benefits from a paid job, and Hazel benefits from her working relationship with him.

“I have personally never worked with anyone who had an IDD (intellectual or developmental disability) before joining this company, and it has truly changed my heart,” Hazel said. “It changed my life. It really did. And that makes me feel like a better person. I love it.”