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Opinion: Let's create jobs to help cure loneliness for those on autism spectrum

Dave Meador

A lot is written about the physical toll that COVID-19 takes on a body, the irreparable damage to lungs, hearts and other organs that has killed more than 190,000 Americans and left countless others with long-term disabilities. Less is written about the damage to souls and psyches. Social isolation hit all of us hard, especially during the first few months of the pandemic that forced most people into quarantine.

The lack of companionship, the boredom, the silence, the wretched repetitiveness of waking up to the same four walls and blurred work-life schedules are among the effects of the pandemic that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children.”

Welcome to the world of adults on the autism spectrum.

Kevin Roach, 28, of Ferndale points out some of his sketches hanging in his cubicle at Ford Motor Credit Co. LLC in Dearborn. Roach works with software as a junior technical renewal analyst, but he studied electronic arts for his bachelor’s degree at Wayne State University. He also is one of 17 workers  with autism at Ford Motor Co. who have been hired through the Autism Alliance of Michigan.

Unfortunately, the autism population knows this life of isolation all too well. In Michigan, it is estimated that 90% of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed. You might ask, “How could that be?” The answer involves a complex, systemic set of issues, but the reality is clear. Given how hard it has been for us to live life socially isolated since mid-March, I ask you: How would you like to do that for the rest of your life?

Tragically, in Michigan our special education students are not prepared for the workplace. Only 50% have high school diplomas, compared to 90% in some other states. At the same time, employers have experimented with hiring adults on the spectrum, but it is at very low scale.

The result? After adults with autism leave the school system they are sentenced to a life of quarantine, social isolation and loneliness for the rest of their years. Most of us struggled after a couple weeks; how would you like to do that for 50 years?

The impact is profound. As you know, work brings meaning to life. Chronic isolation wreaks havoc on physical and mental health, including depression, and this is all added to the impact that autism already has on the individual.

Without work, adults on the spectrum live in deep poverty. Without good housing options in Michigan and given the little financial resources Social Security provides, most adults live with their families. My daughter is on the spectrum. Her social security is about $9,000 a year. Her food supplement is $180 a year. That is not enough for her to live independently. She needs a job, for her financial and mental health.

Author Jim Collin coined the term, Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal, or BHAG, as a powerful mechanism to stimulate progress. Good goals should feel uncomfortable and hard — like John Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. At our annual gala in September, the Autism Alliance of Michigan will announce our moonshot: Creating jobs for 101,000 adults on the spectrum.

As Darren Walker, CEO of the Ford Foundation in NYC, recently said, “Together we can break the silence of our collective ignorance and affirmatively declare that rights for people with disabilities are human rights — that disability is social justice.”

Dave Meador, vice chairman of DTE Energy

Driving systemic change to put 101,000 adults on the spectrum to work will require that we collectively move mountains. From rigorous early diagnosis, to access to evidenced-based therapies; to special education with a focus on vocational training and asking companies to broaden their definition of diversity to include aggressive goals to hire people with disabilities, including autism.

COVID-19 killed my mother. She succumbed to a virus that has given every Michigan resident a bitter taste of isolation. I don’t want my daughter to face a life sentence of loneliness, nor do I want that for anybody on the spectrum.

The Autism Alliance can’t do this alone. But we can be a catalyst for change, and help provide 101,000 of Michigan’s most special citizens the purpose and pride that comes with a job.

Please join us at the Autism Alliance of Michigan’s virtual gala on Sept. 18 to learn more.

Dave Meador is vice chairman and chief administration officer of DTE Energy, and chairman of the Autism Alliance of Michigan.

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