Opinion: Support for autism forms great workers

Ron Fournier

My son Tyler is 21. He drives himself four times a week to Macomb Community College, where he earns good grades. He excels at part-time jobs, most recently a summer internship at Chemical Bank. He wants to move out of his parents’ home and become a history teacher.

Tyler is an extraordinary young man who happens to be on the autism spectrum. At age 12, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that makes him different from neurotypical people.

Tyler and Ron Fournier at the 2017 Autism Alliance of Michigan Gala. This year’s gala, celebrating the non profit’s tenth anniversary, will take place on April 13.

He is off-the-charts smart, with a near photographic memory about topics that he cares about.

He is intensely focused on details most people miss.

He is an obsessively hard worker when challenged with tasks that meet his interests and abilities.

He is a sensitive soul, the kindest and most caring person I know.

Unfortunately, Tyler is about to enter a world of adulthood that is not ready for him. As a member of the board of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, I’m proudly aware of progress made in Michigan to tap the full potential of people such as Tyler.

Ten years ago, when the alliance was founded, an autism diagnosis in Michigan didn’t lead to therapy, physician support, school resources and insurance coverage. Michigan lagged far behind other states, including Virginia, where I was raising my family at the time.

When Tyler was diagnosed, he immediately qualified for an autism program at his middle school in the Arlington, Virginia, public school system. He was placed in a homeroom with other students on the spectrum, a place where they would not be bullied.

Highly trained aides taught Tyler social and organizational skills to bring out his unique brilliance, and they accompanied him to mainstream classes when necessary.

Tyler thrived. Nearly three years after his high school graduation and our move to Detroit, Tyler still calls that Virginia autism program “a life-changing experience.”

In Michigan, in the meantime, the Autism Alliance of Michigan has created an industry of autism support in 10 years. Michigan has gone from one of the worst states for someone with autism to live in, to one of the best.

A decade ago, there were 30 behavior therapists in Michigan who treated autism. Today, that number is in the thousands.

What changed everything was a law championed by the Autism Alliance of Michigan that requires insurance companies to cover behavioral therapy for autism. The insurance coverage attracted therapists and physicians to Michigan and created desperately needed avenues of support and treatment. Today, the average age of diagnosis and start of treatment in Michigan has dropped from age seven to age four. We know from research, the earlier a person can receive therapy and support the more likely they are to thrive long-term.

There’s much more to do. The Autism Alliance of Michigan is now hyper-focused on helping people on the spectrum find jobs and, when possible, live independently.

We need employers in Michigan to understand that autism is one answer to the talent-and-skills gap. People with autism are loyal employees with specific skills and a strong work ethic. But they are often ruled out during the interview process because of problems like not answering questions directly or failing to make strong eye contact.

Such biases are not only keeping people with autism out of work. They are denying Michigan businesses a workforce.

If you’re lucky enough to meet Tyler one day, please look past what makes him different and recognize what makes him special. I’m not sure whether he’ll be a history professor, but I can assure you he teaches me something good about life every day.

Ron Fournier is president of Truscott Rossman, a public relations firm with an office in Detroit. Three years ago, he published a best-selling book about Tyler called “Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations.”