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Can you elaborate on the misperception of individuals with autism?

You know that the whole program, the Artistas Cafe program was really a representation of the shift because what happens is, people have such a misperception of autism. When they see this, this team at the cafe this team of baristas, serving people, connecting with people, talking with people making the beverages, I mean doing everything that you would see if you walked into a Starbucks or you know, Dunkin Donuts or any other coffee shop. Once people started to see that they go, “wow, is that autism? Those people don’t have autism.” It just goes to show you what a misperception there is about what people with autism can do. You know, and this is just one. This is just one career path, right? This is just one job. I see that now. And every aspect, you know, people with autism doing these amazing things using their unique talents and abilities.

How did your workers feel when they felt they were being useful and interacting with customers?

Well, just starting that program and seeing you know, when we started it, these young people had none of them had ever worked, right. They were in either volunteer positions, you know, or they were just sitting on the couch. So to take a group like that, and work with them, and really help them to learn the skills, to be able to do the tasks associated with that job, but really, more importantly, to learn all the soft skills, you know, the skills that people with autism are sometimes, you know, people say, Oh, they don’t have communication skills, they don’t have social skills, you know, they can’t connect with people, they’re in their own world. And to see the fact that these individuals now, granted, they were aligned with this particular job, they didn’t have the skills when they started, but to see them developing those skills. It was, what a blessing to see them kind of coming into their own and feeling empowered. That’s what a job does. You know, I remember even giving them their first paycheck, right, and taking a picture because of the pride and the joy of them getting their paycheck. I mean, those things are just indescribable, you know, priceless. That’s what we have the opportunity to do for this population, you know, to help them feel empowered. Like they can do it like they’re part of our Tampa Bay community.

I’m really interested in how a business owner can get involved in this. Because if I’m a business owner, and I don’t understand the autism world, how do I even get started? Where does an autistic worker fit into my company or business plans?

Well, the first step is to attend our Understanding Autism in the Workplace Workshop. Understand what the diagnosis is, and some of the things today that we consider the challenges of autism. We’ve come to see that those challenges sometimes can be their greatest strength. I’ll give you an example. I mean, sometimes we say “Oh, people with autism are just really focused on what they want to do.” You know, we’re really focused on one thing. Well, you know, what we say is that wow, that leads to passion. Focus leads to productivity. Again, if you’ve got the right person in the right spot doing what they’re focused on, or really love doing, that can really lead to a highly productive employee that’s really engaged. So again, it’s just how we’re looking at these things and really, as business owners, how do we create the space for that? Right, how do we understand it enough? And I often say, it’s not any different than what we talked about generationally, you know, generationally, we say, every generation has their specific drivers and their specific way of being, you know, we talk a lot about millennials. How do we bring millennials into our group? How do we create a company that can support millennials? Well if we think about it in that way, it’s another whole different community. And if we can think about autism like that, this is a population of people. Actually, it’s an untapped market of potential employees because the unemployment rates are so high. But if we can really as a business, as an organization, understand them and understand what we need to do, then you can create a space where you got this great, really great group of employees. And that’s what I experienced as a business owner because I worked in the business world. When I started creating that cafe, and I saw how dedicated, passionate you know, I’d have people coming in early, I’d have people not calling in sick because they really wanted to be there. They were very appreciative that they were there. When I started seeing those things, I thought, man, you know, if businesses out there knew that they could also experience this type of worker, we talked about the workforce today, sometimes we talk about this engagement. But this workforce is very engaged when we have them in the right spot. And that’s key for us because you know, oftentimes with people with unique abilities, we put them in roles that are common, maybe, you know to people with unique abilities, but that might not be what they want to do. So hence, they are not going to be as successful. So our key is to create these matches.

Do those great employees have the ability to move up in the rankings? You’re bringing in some people who love repetition who, who are focused and doing things. Is there a worry or what is the downside that you have run into?

When we started the cafe, there was a lot of concern about, gosh, they’re in this environment, there’s a lot going on, it’s a cafe environment, there’s noise there, sound. So people with autism can be highly sensory, so lighting can affect them. Sound can affect them. One of the things that we do with our students that go through our training is to help them identify like, what are the things like that that could keep me from getting out there? And how do you? What tools do you have at your disposal to mitigate that, right? So if I had to wear earplugs, if the noise is, there are things we can do to mitigate that so that that becomes a non issue. That’s really what we’re doing is we’re preparing them, right? We’re also preparing them emotionally. Oftentimes, what I hear from businesses? “Oh, my gosh, why did they have a meltdown?” Well, oftentimes any employee, first of all, any employee can have, you know, a time of stress and anxiety. So, even though we associate that with autism that can happen to anybody. What we do is we really equip them as well as with the emotional tools with the emotional understanding of where am I and what can I do to get myself back in a better feeling place? So, with our program, we just trained that on the front end, we just showed them, hey, if you’re feeling a little stress, it’s okay, this is what you would do. So they they know now what to do, right? Go down, take a five minute breather, you know. So these are things, again, simple things that businesses could understand, right? That there might be things that if I’m in tune with the fact that this person might have some sensory things going on, and there’s a lot of noise going on today or something like that, that I can understand and I can help that employee. Take the time, take five minutes, and then come on back. Make sure they got their ear plugs in. I mean, again, those are so simple. Those are really simple things that awareness can bring, that are easy to do. And most of these things are by the way, you know, we think as a business, oh my god, I gotta change my whole operation. Most of these things are just like this, they’re small things that we can do. Often we think about it like, as you know, when we, as businesses started hiring people with physical disabilities, you know, ADA came along, we added ramps, you know, we, we made these spaces accessible for people that had physical disabilities. Autism, I view the same way. What is it that we can do as a business to make our businesses accessible to people with autism? And again, minor things that we can change up to really create these spaces?

And it being as a business owner, it may sound like a terrible question to ask you, but a business owner or hiring manager may need to know these things. How does a salary work? Are any kind of government grants available? Are there any kind of tax breaks for employers to hire the autistic population?

Our goal is for our population to live their life on purpose. And that means getting paid. Getting paid the salary that anybody else would get paid, right? It’s not any lesser, because as I shared with you, we’re really looking to put people in that can do the job, right? So, having that available to them. And again, some of the benefits we talked about was you know, reducing operational costs, you get a focused and productive employee. They think differently, which could really create some innovation and creativity in your, in your jobs. They like structured repetitive tasks. They’re passionate when they’re working in their unique ability. They’re very engaged. But on top of all of that, businesses can receive up to 40% tax benefit for years. So, there is a lot and you know, some businesses can also receive a way to get reimbursed for the first couple of months of salary. So even that is available. But yes, we’ve taken advantage. You know, we’re a company that hires people with autism. So we ourselves have seen what a great benefit it is, if you could write off some of the salary under the tax benefit under the Workforce Opportunity Act. It’s a benefit to our business as well financially.

If I want to hire a few of these workers, do you just kind of drop them into a company? Does someone come in there and help with their training?

Our role is that we train and educate the business about it. What they can do is to make this a real win for them, right, to create this great environment for the students. On top of that, we are looking to become the resource for businesses, right, because we’re launching this program, the Autism Shift or business member. So that means that, hey, you’re not alone. If you have something that comes up, ask us because we’ve been the employer, right? We’re not just teaching it. We’ve been the employer through both our Artistas Cafe and Autism Shifts. Now we employ people with autism here, and we’re creating a business with people with autism. So we’ve probably experienced it so we can help. Or if something’s happening, we can help you with a different approach, maybe then, then what you would do with a neurotypical employee, or help you understand why that might be happening. So again, if you have a resource there that you can connect with call email, and you can get a response back, then it takes that fear and worries out of it. What if I’m not equipped? What if I’m fearful that something might happen, that I won’t be able to deal with? What if I have to let go of someone? I mean, we’ve heard all of these things, so we want to create that support system for businesses as well. So we can share that information and the more we can disseminate this information, get it online and have it available. It makes it so much easier right for businesses, to open up their doors to our population.

Obviously, you have a website, what’s the best way for business to get in touch with you to get started?

Yeah, so businesses can call and go to our website. There’s a place for businesses to sign up. It’s www autismshifts.org, or they can send us an email info@AutismShifts.org or give us a call 813-251-2787 these are all ways to get in contact with us. If you’re interested, if this piques your interest as a business owner, again, the first step is we have a free workshop Understanding Autism in the Workplace. We’d like to find out a little bit about you what kind of roles might be available. And, again, it’s really about creating these great matches. We want it to be a value, right? We don’t want to say, hey, hire our population because they need jobs. No, hire our population because you’re going to make great employees for you. Right? So that’s what we want businesses to hear that, hey, this is worth my investing time to really get a great employee at the end of the day.