Caption: Howard County Autism Society Executive Director Melissa Rosenberg, left, receives a grant award from Ron and Cyndi Gula at the 2023 RSA Conference in San Francisco. (Submitted photo)

Providers of adult autism education and hiring programs in Howard County announced significant expansions in their offerings this spring.

My Life Learning Center in Ellicott City transitioned from an evening-only program to a full-time day program following Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration approval of its self-directed Community Development Services program.

MLLC serves adults with autism requiring substantial or very substantial support, providing life and job skills training customized to individual needs and choices. Its step-by-step training procedure spirals in capabilities as training advances.

Additionally, the Autism Hiring Program, an initiative of the Howard County Autism Society, was presented with a $50,000 runner-up grant awarded from the Gula Tech Foundation to support neurodiversity hiring in Cybersecurity and information technology. The award was given at the 2023 RSA Conference in San Francisco.

Steady advancement

My Life Learning Center promotes sustainable employment for adults with autism through microbusinesses and STEM employment, enabling students to generate income from screen printing, creative art, and electronic subassembly through ownership and working side by side with neurotypical adults.

“We currently have nine clients, six of which are enrolled in self-directed as opposed to traditional services,” said Somnath Sengupta, executive director of MLLC. “There are two or three more in the pipeline who just graduated from high school and are still determining if this program is a good fit for them.”

Sengupta began a morning program in August 2022, and received DDA approval for a full-day program in January.

“We have hired three teachers since then and I’ll probably need to hire another one,” he said, noting that their pay is above market rate because the program needs instructors who are experienced.

“With 12 people in the program we will probably need to expand beyond the 2,000 square feet we have and target 4,000 square feet,” he said. “I don’t see us expanding the number of clients we serve, though, because I want to maintain the high quality of services we are offering.”

MLLC’s students are continuing to expand their horizons through a unique partnership with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, where they will be assisting Sengupta with a government contract for materials assessment research.

“We are taking students to the lab every two or three months to learn the environment and equipment and prepare them to begin working there,” Sengupta said.

Perfect storm of opportunity

Funding from the Gula Tech Foundation grant will be used to attract and train Autism Hiring Program candidates interested in working in cybersecurity/IT while expanding a pipeline of employers, said Melissa Rosenberg, executive director of HCAS.

It will go toward offering additional training and certifications for candidates in partnership with postsecondary institutions, creating internship opportunities, facilitating workplace mentorships and providing training for employers to engage their teams in learning about neurodivergent employees.

 “The combination of a significant population of under- or unemployed autistic workers — 85% of them with college degrees — and more than 700,000 openings in the cybersecurity and IT fields make this a perfect storm of opportunity to connect great workers with cyber/IT employers,” Rosenberg said. “We’ll hopefully be partnering with some colleges and universities in this area to provide that training.”

HCAS’s Autism Hiring Program has expanded to 20 participants and 16 employers in two current programs in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery Counties and Baltimore City, although cybersecurity and IT were not a major focus.

“In prior years we had two candidates working with the Defense Intelligence Agency, and last year we helped Northrop Grumman Corporation start an internship program for neurodivergent interns through their Space Division in Baltimore,” Rosenberg said. “This summer [NGC] will be adding new sites in Colorado and California, and we’ll be looking to support those.”

Growing the pool

The Autism Hiring Program advances workplace neurodiversity and acceptance, connecting businesses to an untapped workforce of skilled adults with autism and targeting job seekers not supported by existing systems.

It addresses the needs of adults who have high level, marketable skills but have struggled to secure and maintain desirable employment. On the business side, it connects employers to a competent, capable workforce, improving their bottom line while creating a more inclusive and neurodiverse work environment.

 While at the RSA Conference, HCAS leaders were able to connect with other agencies and companies that might be potential employers for their candidates.

“We also met other grantees and some of us are staying in touch about what we are doing in different states,” Rosenberg said. “That is exciting, because we want to get more of this opportunity happening and we’re interested in seeing what other providers are doing.”

She added that the Gulas are not just handing out the grant funds, “they’re helping us connect with partners who can help us and are committed to making a difference in autism hiring. To that end we encourage any interested employer and candidate to reach out to us, we’re always looking to grow that pool.”

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