For young people with autism, it can be tough to get in the door. So Project Search at the University of Washington builds workplace skills, and Microsoft focuses on hiring and training.

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MATTHEW SKELLY’S DREAMS are in the clouds. Specifically, in an Alaska Airlines plane, flying through the clouds.

The 21-year-old Seattleite has a goal to become a flight attendant for the local airline company — but this spring, his training is taking place firmly on the ground, within a series of mirrored rooms on the University of Washington campus.

Skelly strides confidently to a small whiteboard in the corner of a back office packed with chairs, a coffee maker and a copy machine. He bends down to see his task list for the day, the red highlighter in his hand poised to check off the first job.

First on the list: Wipe down the tables and chairs in every room of the University of Washington Speech & Hearing Clinic. Skelly, dressed smartly in black slacks and a black polo shirt, knows exactly where to find the tube of cleaning wipes and the floor map of the office.

RELATED: The story behind ‘How UW, Microsoft are pitching in to help job-hunters with autism’

After dusting the rooms, the task list notes he will make copies, then do a bit of computer work if he has time. Skelly checks the list often throughout his shift, relying on it to help keep him on track.

Skelly has autism and has long struggled to keep focused on the tasks presented him. That distraction was especially bad in middle school, Skelly remembers, but has significantly improved the past several years.

“I’m learning about how to be more in-depth in my job,” Skelly says, pausing briefly from wiping down a table to check his map and see which room is next. “It’s about knowing what I should be doing without someone telling me.”

Still, it helps Skelly to have a list so he can take things one step at a time. He plans to employ a similar checklist approach to working his way toward Alaska Air. He already knows a few of the requirements: must be able to swim, must be at least 21, must be able to work on a team.

 

SKELLY IS PART of Project Search at UW, a program operated in part by the university and Seattle Public Schools that helps young people with autism gain skills vital to workplaces — and, by the end of the school year, to find jobs.

The goal is that, over a course of at least three internships in a year, Skelly and his classmates will learn how to work in an office, or perhaps a restaurant, or maybe in a library — and they will know how to take public transit to get to their jobs and how to interact with co-workers and supervisors.

The UW program is one of several Project Search programs across the United States, and is one of a small handful to focus solely on young people with autism. Its challenges are significant: Research shows only about half the people with autism have held a job at some point during high school and their early 20s — the lowest rate when compared to other groups with disabilities, according to a study published in the National Institutes of Health Public Access.

Alan Chen checks to make sure no books are missing in the Department of Classics library at Denny Hall on the UW campus, a job he has through Project Search, which helps students with autism get internships and jobs. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Alan Chen checks to make sure no books are missing in the Department of Classics library at Denny Hall on the UW campus, a job he has through Project Search, which helps students with autism get internships and jobs. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

But researchers at UW, backed by teachers from high schools and job-placement experts, are hopeful they can craft specific classroom lessons and pair students with specialized job experiences to give young people a jump-start into jobs.

Part of the challenge is the breadth of the autism spectrum, and in the number of ways the condition can manifest. Autism can mean many things, but generally appears in two ways: difficulties related to social communication, and the concept of repetitive behaviors, says Gary Stobbe, a neurologist at UW Medicine who has helped craft the Project Search program.

That means people with autism might have trouble maintaining eye contact and keeping up with conversations, especially if the chatter is ambiguous, and might focus intently on a certain topic when talking to people, showing little interest for other topics. Some people with autism also have intellectual disabilities.

But not everyone with autism has any or all of these characteristics, and severity varies widely. So the program organizers curate the internships as much as possible, aiming to give all students jobs in which they can gain skills within their reach.

Hala Annabi, left, is an associate professor in the University of Washington’s Information School. Jill Locke, a research assistant professor, is the business liaison for Project Search.
Hala Annabi, left, is an associate professor in the University of Washington’s Information School. Jill Locke, a research assistant professor, is the business liaison for Project Search.

Holding a job has been shown to reduce depression and create better mental health generally, Stobbe says. Many people argue that getting people into jobs benefits society as a whole. Otherwise, some people with autism would be more dependent on their families and social services during the days.

Many companies, such as Microsoft, are starting to think of people with autism as an untapped talent pool — people who are skilled, but also might bring perspectives to companies that are currently lacking.

It still can be tough to get in the door. Jill Locke, a research assistant professor at UW who is the Project Search business liaison, and Hala Annabi, an associate professor in the UW Information School, are involved in helping people with autism get ready for employment, and pointed out how many things anyone moving from school to work has to think about: the right clothes to wear, how to write a charming cover letter, prepping for an in-person interview, and on and on. It’s a challenge for pretty much every 20-something.

“Imagine having autism on top of that,” Locke says.

Teacher Maggie Meister, with Seattle Public Schools, helps Alan Chen during a class at the University of Washington as part of the Project Search program for students with autism. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Teacher Maggie Meister, with Seattle Public Schools, helps Alan Chen during a class at the University of Washington as part of the Project Search program for students with autism. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

MAGGIE MEISTER IS mapping out a schedule for the next two weeks on a huge whiteboard in UW’s Allen Library.

“What do you all need to bring for the pool on Friday?” she asked the Project Search students. The end of the quarter was nearing in March, and the students were about to finish their second internship of the year.

“A suit, and a towel if we want to swim,” Skelly answered.

“And?” Meister prompted.

“Three dollars.”

“And which jobs are you going to apply to before next week?”

The answers came out slowly, as prompted: Pemco. Target. Starbucks. Alaska Air.

Meister, a Seattle Public Schools teacher, works with students with disabilities who are in the three “transition years” that can be taken from the age of 18 to 21. Students stay enrolled in high school and participate in programs formed to help them find work after school.

Along with job coach Cassondra Yi from Provail, a Seattle company that works with people with disabilities, Meister helps students do mock job interviews and videotapes them to review.

These notes written on a whiteboard by teacher Maggie Meister, with the Seattle Public Schools, are for her students in the Project Search program, which helps high school students with autism gain skills and find jobs. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
These notes written on a whiteboard by teacher Maggie Meister, with the Seattle Public Schools, are for her students in the Project Search program, which helps high school students with autism gain skills and find jobs. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

One student was having trouble understanding the question, “How long have you been working at this worksite?”

The obvious answer, it seemed to him, was “five hours,” the length of time he had been at his internship that day. People with autism often understand the most literal interpretation of language. So Meister explained that although that is what she asked, what she meant was: How many months have you been working at this particular job?

“So often when we ask students questions and they don’t understand, we just ask the same question again and again and hope it will be clarified,” she says. “Instead of just asking the same question and thinking, ‘Maybe they didn’t hear me correctly,’ you have to present it in a different way.”

That’s reasonable for Meister and Yi to do while the students are practicing at UW. But out in the wild of the job market, it’s tough to count on hiring managers understanding the intricacies of autism — even if they know the interviewee has it — and knowing how to best communicate.

 

THAT’S WHY MICROSOFT has taken a two-sided approach to hiring people with autism. The Redmond tech giant not only brings candidates with autism into the office for at least a week to walk them through a specialized interview process; it also trains hiring managers and future co-workers on how to best interact with their new colleagues.

Anyone with autism can apply for Microsoft’s hiring academy, and the company often gets recent college grads applying from all over the country.

David Eisner, a software engineer, was hired at Microsoft through a program for people with autism. His stuffed animal, Bumble, is on his desk. Sometimes, when Eisner needs to concentrate, he pats Bumble and regroups. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
David Eisner, a software engineer, was hired at Microsoft through a program for people with autism. His stuffed animal, Bumble, is on his desk. Sometimes, when Eisner needs to concentrate, he pats Bumble and regroups. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Russ King, an engineering manager at Microsoft, fully embraced that challenge. King dumps a thick book — 542 pages, to be exact — on the table of a conference room in Microsoft’s sprawling headquarters.

“Have you read this?” he asks the room, pointing to “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,” a book by Steve Silberman that traces the history of autism.

King has. He devoured it, and several other books and articles about autism, after first taking the company-offered training about a year and a half ago. King stumbled upon Microsoft’s hiring program in the way you might expect a hiring manager to: He needed more engineers.

Top-notch recruits can be hard to reel in, and besides, King’s team was starting to feel a bit too uniform.

“The population starts to look the same after a while,” he says. “Given the diversity of our community, when we all start looking and sounding the same, it’s nice to bring in something different.”

King, a British native who started working for Microsoft in the U.K. nearly 26 years ago, has made a couple of hires from the program, which began at Microsoft four years ago. He has coached a few of his team members through road bumps in working with their new colleagues, he says, though really the net has been a positive impact for everyone. Communication as a whole across the team has improved, he says. People no longer assume their co-workers know what they’re thinking, and they take more time to explain things.

And once the hires from the autism program are in, there are no accommodations as far as what King expects from the quality of work.

“We don’t lower the bar; we haven’t changed the rules,” he says. “It’s just a different-shaped door.”

Jenny Lay-Flurrie is chief accessibility officer at Microsoft and oversees the company’s program to hire people with autism. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Jenny Lay-Flurrie is chief accessibility officer at Microsoft and oversees the company’s program to hire people with autism. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

IT STARTED WITH résumés. Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, knows software jobs appeal to some people with autism — coding is logic- and rule-based, and it requires a lot of attention to detail. But she had heard about people struggling to find jobs, and she looked into why. It was the résumés.

A résumé would list maybe one internship, a few months at a grocery store, a huge gap in time and then, at the bottom … a double major in computer science and data science. Lay-Flurrie and her team at Microsoft reasoned the candidates must be getting hung up somewhere in the interview process, because it seemed pretty clear that the technical skills were there.

Interviewing can be intimidating, and the consequences of misunderstanding someone or getting off on the wrong foot can mean not getting a job.

“What we’ve learned is, you’ve kind of got to ditch the interview,” Lay-Flurrie says. “And go with an academy.”

Microsoft’s weeklong program is held each quarter and has so far resulted in hiring 50 people with autism. The week includes classes and tips on how to communicate in teams, tests of technical prowess and group games — the most well-known: building a bridge with sticks and marshmallows.

David Eisner’s favorite part of the week was the chance to build a robot from Legos, but he thinks what ultimately got him hired were his web-design skills. Eisner is a software engineer for Microsoft and works with a team in the company’s Sammamish office. His office is decked out with cozy stuffed animals — soft things help him think.

Eisner, who has autism and Tourette’s, knows he reacts less emotionally to many things than a lot of people do.

“When I see how other people think and behave, I see myself as more of a systematic thinker about things,” he says. “Sometimes people give traditionally normal responses to my questions, but it still surprises me.”

It hasn’t been an issue on his team, where he mostly chats about their work and video games. But it’s been helpful to have a built-in mentor that Microsoft connected him with when he started. His mentor reminded his boss to give Eisner specific steps within tasks — such as testing a piece of code after he writes it.

“Over time, it sticks,” he says. “You just have to hit me with it a few times.”

Kendall Foster polishes and dries silverware while working as a server assistant at the Inglewood Golf Club in Kenmore. Foster is enrolled in the Project Search program at the University of Washington. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Kendall Foster polishes and dries silverware while working as a server assistant at the Inglewood Golf Club in Kenmore. Foster is enrolled in the Project Search program at the University of Washington. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

KENDALL FOSTER CAME to Meister’s class at UW beaming. The cheerful 21-year-old has good news, delivered to her via a phone call just 16 hours ago.

She got a job.

It was no small feat. Foster, who has autism and dyslexia, interviewed for six jobs since December, with no luck.

“Gene Juarez, QFC, Microsoft, a coffee shop, Seattle Center and Nordstrom Rack,” she lists.

But the winner is Inglewood Golf Club, where Foster will work in the newly renovated restaurant, helping set tables and making sure everything stays in order. She’ll have a job coach with her, at least at the beginning, and already has figured out how to take the Access bus from her home in North Seattle to the Kenmore club.

“I can’t wait to tell my sister,” Foster says, grinning. Only the fact that her sister is studying abroad, and was therefore asleep, stopped Foster from calling right when she got the news.

Cassondra Yi, left, a transition specialist with Provail, gives Kendall Foster advice as she works as a server assistant at the Inglewood Golf Club in Kenmore. Yi works as a job coach with Foster and others in the program Foster is enrolled in at the University of Washington. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Cassondra Yi, left, a transition specialist with Provail, gives Kendall Foster advice as she works as a server assistant at the Inglewood Golf Club in Kenmore. Yi works as a job coach with Foster and others in the program Foster is enrolled in at the University of Washington. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Foster’s goals are pretty typical of a young 20-something. She’d like to earn money, get some experience for her résumé and maybe one day live independently.

She lives with her parents now, and has a home aide, called a “behavior technician,” visit a few times a week. They go over flashcards with common social phrases, a bit of math and life skills such as buttoning jean jackets — a task that can prove difficult for Foster because of trouble with fine motor skills.

That might make rolling silverware in napkins difficult, she tells Provail job coach Yi, who helped Foster leverage her internships at UW into her job offer and will accompany Foster as she starts at Inglewood. When Foster started in Project Search, she didn’t know how to use a copy machine, a skill she mastered while interning in the Speech & Hearing clinic.

The experiences have given Foster confidence that she can learn the duties at her new job. Anyway, there are more pressing things to consider — like what to do with her first paycheck.

“You never know,” she says. “Probably save it.”

MICROSOFT’S EFFORTS and the Project Search program are just two of many services around the Puget Sound to help people with autism find jobs, get education and develop life skills. Both are still admittedly small and early in their development, but the program organizers hope to use what they have learned so far to bridge into expanded programs.

Microsoft hosted a summit in April with more than a dozen companies to discuss autism and work. The Project Search researchers at UW hope to use their findings and curriculum to also serve people with other disabilities.

In the meantime, Skelly is one step closer to the stars after an informational interview with Alaska Airlines this spring.

“It just opened my eyes to all I need to do to be a flight attendant,” he says.

The first challenge? Learn to swim long distances wearing a life jacket. He can float and swim in the jackets, but he needs to increase his speed and distance.

The next? Learning a great deal of patience when dealing with difficult people. Skelly already has some experience from working at Starbucks, but on a plane, “We’re up in the air; they can’t really leave,” he says.

It’ll take a lot of work, he says. But he’s determined to gain composure through practice and take to the skies.