Recently, an MBA student asked us a simple question as part of his project. “Why do more companies not employ people with autism?” The question is obviously one for other companies to answer, but we couldn’t just say “ask them!” It was another way of asking us “How is it that you are able to create employment for people with autism while others can’t?”
Harry Specters was born by combining “a love for chocolates” and “a passion for creating jobs for people with autism”. The passion for creating jobs is natural – we have a son with autism. This passion drives the need to look at people with autism a bit differently. And when you do that, magic happens! The magic uncovers the untapped, under-utilised and un-nurtured skills that people with autism have. We are very proud of the fact that during the past two years, one of our biggest successes is to be able to create a supportive environment for young people with autism. We have worked with over 40 young people to date, and as a result we have a good idea of what skills they possess. We are not experts in the field of autism and are in the process of looking for experts who can further investigate this and make their findings available to other enterprises.
So what are the skills and characteristics that we have come to love and that makes them amazing workers?
- Great attention to detail. When it comes to chocolates, they are naturals for quality checks. They will notice the slightest scratch on a chocolate and the smallest fault in packaging. And they are not afraid to shout about!
- Follow instructions Our factory rules are strict when it comes to hygiene. We explain these rules just once, or twice in some cases, and they observe the rules exceptionally well. For example, wearing uniforms, hairnets and gloves, and of course, washing hands before starting a new task in the factory or in a packaging area.
- Zero level of hypocrisy. This one is more interesting than the previous two. They will always tell you things exactly the way they see it. Diplomacy is not their strong point and they do not mince words. If they come in and don’t feel like talking, they will tell us that. I remember one young man who tried one of our fruity chocolates and said that it was the worst thing he had ever tasted! His teaching assistant later told us that he does not like fruits. We found it very refreshing and quite funny, because the majority of people would not have been so honest about it. We are so conscious of social norms and etiquettes that we are hesitant to give honest feedback. This extends to their natural ability to say ‘no’ if they do not want to do any task. They will be honest about why they have said no, without worrying about whether this will have any negative effect on their future prospects within the company.
- They do not engage in workplace politics. We have never experienced anything related to this in our small workplace. I believe they do not have any concept of politics etc. They struggle to understand the logic of “power” and its potential advantages for personal gains.
- Most love social interaction. Even though they struggle with social skills, most of the people working with us love social interaction. However, like their mainstream peers, they retreat into their comfort zone if they fail to connect with someone. Sadly, this is mainly because we fail to understand their way of interaction, which is slightly different. They are more spontaneous, direct, and, at times, out of context. And what is wrong with that? Only because this is slightly out of line with our “social norms” we perceive this as unacceptable or odd. Personally, we just let them be themselves - chatting away, jumping from one topic to the next without any clear connection (at least in our mind)! At times, we have to step in and tell them to stop chatting and get on with their work while packaging chocolates. And at other times we encourage them to interact, knowing this is the only place, outside their home, where they feel comfortable enough to be themselves. In fact, feedback from some of the young people working with us, is that they want more people in the factory in order to have more social interaction. Like us, people with autism can be either introverts or extroverts or somewhere in between. In general, they love to interact, show keen interest in other people and their interests and love asking questions. As a result, they can work very well in a team.
- Able to work under stress. When we started Harry Specters, our biggest fear was that during our peak seasons, our staff would struggle with the extra work, tight deadlines and long hours. It would prove stressful for them and would affect fulfilment of orders. We knew our fear was baseless and untested, but decided that if such a situation came up, we would find a way to handle it without affecting business. Two years have passed since we launched the company, and we never had any issues or had to close our shop or stop taking orders because our brilliant staff couldn’t cope. On the contrary, we found that not only can they take stress, they can take a lot of stress and yet remain calm. This was quite a shocking revelation for us! There are a couple of supporting anecdotes that will better explain what I mean. When we were starting up, I hired an amateur photographer, a young girl with autism, to take product photos for our website. Having a limited budget, we hired a studio for a few hours for the photoshoot. It was my first time getting some real work done by someone with autism and I was stressed even before we started! This was the critical test – would my idea work in the real world, with someone I didn’t know well. I was stressed and the photographer seemed calm. The clock ticked and the progress was not meeting the timescales I had imagined. I got more stressed, eventually the girl noticed and she turned to me and said, “Don’t worry Miss Stressy-pants, relax and we will finish this job”. And she did exactly that – finished the job to a very high standard. This was her first assignment as a photographer and she handled it very professionally. She was so pleased with the job that she changed the course she was doing at university and started a degree in photography! The second story is when we took a huge order from a company in Germany in February of this year. The order was to make 132,000 truffles in one month or 4,400 truffles a day (including weekends). We only had the capacity to make about 1500 truffles a day! Mention this to anyone in manufacturing and they will laugh and think we were crazy to take on such an order! I had taken the decision and there was no time to second guess the decision. The only option was to look forward. I was very stressed and thought that our staff with autism may not be able to take on such a rapid increase in production and packaging. I was berating myself that I was going to put undue stress on my staff and it would have lasting negative effects. We hired a few short-term staff not on the autism spectrum, to help with the order. Time went by and I noticed that people with autism were the least stressed amongst us! They increased their pace of work to meet the increased demand, came in every day and worked long hours, laughed and chatted away and met daily targets. We completed the order with most of the help coming from people with autism. They helped us deliver this near impossible order! My learning from this project? Never take on such orders again! One month later, one of our staff asked me when we would have a repeat order from the German company! I asked him why and he said he really enjoyed it. This prompted me to ask others how they had felt during this one month and all of them said that they loved it. We were nervous wrecks and they are happy to go through such an order again!
- Loyal employees. Employee loyalty has three dimensions: turnover, attendance and organisational citizenship (individual behaviour and support that contributes to the organisational success). It is a major concern for employers. The value of loyal workers has increased because of a) competition for talent and b) the organisations are going flatter with more focus on employee empowerment. I feel very lucky sharing that on all three dimensions, we have zero problems. During busy times, our staff are happy to come on weekends and work for longer hours, not because of the monetary benefit, but because we provide them with the sense of achievement and fulfilment which they crave. They understand the fact that our business would not be able to function without them, and it is their sense of responsibility that makes them such loyal workers. They don’t take days off unless they have a genuine reason, they are punctual, and conscientious in their work. If they do not want to put in long hours, they will say so in advance, so you don’t have last minute absences to deal with – as is the case when dealing with mainstream employees. We have had 5 young people with autism working for us on and off, and all of them want to be with us forever!
- Different perspective. As most of you know, our Rose & Cardamom chocolate won a three star gold award in 2014. Many people have given us their feedback, commenting on the balance and unique flavour combination. Among all the comments we have received, there is one that really stood out. This young 17 year old was at Harry Specters for his work experience and I happened to give him our Rose & Cardamom chocolate. After eating the chocolate, I asked him what he thought of the taste. He said “It tastes romantic!”. The chocolate is exactly that. No one had thought of it in this way, focusing instead on dissecting the flavours and judging the balance of ingredients. This different perspective also extends to the way they work. While assembling flat-packed boxes, some of our staff will come up with a totally different way of folding the box that eliminates a few steps in the process, making it quicker and more efficient. They question how we do things at times, suggesting a different and, quite often, better way.
- People with autism can be very creative. Their creativity in art is very well known. Tim Sharp is a world renowned artist whose work is exhibited in galleries worldwide. There are other examples of great artists. However, our business is chocolate, and in this area we found them to be problem solvers and creative. One of our employees is always keen on discovering new flavours for our chocolates. He bombards us with all sorts of flavour combinations for our ganaches depending on what he has read, seen, or eaten recently. Another young girl has a creative way of packaging chocolates. This creativity is also seen when they decorate moulds for slabs and Easter eggs
- It is common knowledge that people with autism like routine and structured tasks. Well most of us do like a structured approach and management gurus preach about developing structures around tasks, projects and operations. We have found that our staff are very natural when it comes to being structured. However, they do need to be told exactly what to do and when, and what are the exact steps that they need to follow. This ties in with skill # 2 of following instructions religiously. From making chocolates to packaging chocolates, there are hundreds of things that need to be done, some are sequential and others could be concurrent - and if you get your processes right, your operations are in the hands of some excellent people.
- People with autism can be quite flexible. This is something we discovered recently. We always thought that if you disturb their routine, they will become stressed and will be unable to cope. We have trained our son since his childhood to be very adaptive and always tried to break his routine. We did this because we read so much literature around how routine obsessed people with autism are and did not want him to grow up to be a slave to routine and timetables. So when we started working with people with autism, we started with the assumption that most of them would not be very flexible and adaptive. Slowly, we learned by experimenting that they can be very flexible. At times, when we have to meet a deadline, we change the way we do things. This includes changing workflows, and even changing the layout of our workplace. We discovered that they can be very flexible and adapt wonderfully as long as you explain it to them properly. For example, if we don’t need any more boxes assembled, we tell them to stop that task and get on to the next task of packaging the chocolates, even though their job for the day might have been only to come in and make boxes. They are perfectly fine with switching tasks and moving on to unplanned activity.
- They never shirk their duties. I have heard many friends saying that they did nothing at work today or that they have achieved very little at the office today. I must admit while writing this, that the list of people includes me as well! Almost everyone does shirk from time to time. People with autism are different, they will never shirk. It is true that they may not do anything at all but they will show exactly that – do nothing. Unlike many others, who may pretend to work. This also ties in with their lack of hypocrisy.
- In my experience money is not important for people with autism –they do not think that it is the be all and the end all. It is good to have, but not essential. Their sense of achievement is more important to them. Most of the time the pay our staff receive just sits in their bank accounts, according to their parents and carers. They are happy to come in on weekends or work longer without expecting an increase in their pay or compensation for overtime. It always surprises them when they receive extra pay for extra work!
- They can be excellent supervisors. Like their mainstream peers, some are natural supervisors and others are more comfortable in being supervised. During the past two years, I was always worried about what would happen if I fell ill during a seasonal rush or in the middle of a large corporate order. I was reluctant to take on someone not on the spectrum to be my second in command, but didn’t think any of my current staff were up to the task as they all needed supervision. Luckily I have now found a young girl with Aspergers who is gradually taking on more and more responsibilities. She is also capable of supervising students coming in on work experience placements, and assigning as well as overseeing tasks being done by our regular staff.
It was never my intention to write such a long article. I started with 5 skills but somehow the list kept expanding as my husband and I kept thinking of more skills. I’m sure that there are even more skills and characteristics to share, and we will continue doing so as and when we come across them. Also, for these skills to surface and for people with autism to reach their potential, the work environment has to be supportive. They should feel that the workplace is theirs, somewhere they can be themselves and where their contributions are valued. If more organisations can offer such an environment, they would be amazed at the positive impact people with autism can make on their bottom line. We are very grateful to have found such excellent staff who are thoughtful, dependable and able to deliver.
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