Congressman John Sarbanes, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, joined Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen in July to deliver $440,000 in federal funding to support the Autism Hiring Program administered by the Howard County Autism Society.
As part of the event, the elected officials hosted a roundtable with regional nonprofits and other stakeholders to discuss how these funds will help increase hiring opportunities for individuals with autism and connect more businesses and employer partners to this untapped workforce.
“I see this hiring program as a truly important step,” Van Hollen said. “We’ve made substantial progress in many areas, but one area where we continue to lag is in terms of unemployment.”
Melissa Rosenberg, executive director of HCAS, announced that her organization is building on its 30 years of service by expanding into Anne Arundel and Montgomery Counties later this summer.
“We’ll be unveiling a new name in early fall,” she said.
A new partnership with Towson University will also help prepare the HCAS Autism Hiring Program for statewide expansion, with the goal of becoming a national model.
According to Rosenberg, 700,000 autistic youth will transition into adulthood over the next decade, but their overall unemployment rate remains as high as 85%, even for college graduates.
“Our hiring program advances workplace neurodiversity and acceptancy by connecting businesses with nontraditional employees they may not have connected with otherwise,” she said.
Since launching in 2021 with a $10,000 Howard County Innovation Grant, the free hiring program has received 121 applications from 11 counties and Baltimore City.
To date, 36 of the 39 accepted individuals have completed the program, and many have advanced from part-time work to full-time employment with benefits.
The program now boasts 15 active employers, including large organizations like Northrop Grumman Corp. and the Defense Intelligence Agency, as well as smaller businesses like Clark’s Hardware.
“We’ve received funding from Gula Tech Foundation and workforce centers in Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery Counties,” Rosenberg said. “This new federal grant is going to mean more people that we can reach and help.”
Melanie Perreault, Towson University’s interim president, said the new partnership with HCAS will target 45 individuals in its first training cohort.
“Towson’s part is to do the research side and data management to understand the metrics, because we know that data is what leads to larger programs,” she said. “We need to have that proof of concept so that people see this as something everybody should be participating in.”
Another part of the focus will be to improve outreach to underserved communities facing a language barrier and cultural challenges.
“We have a Latino support group that’s 100 families strong,” Perreault said. “We just hired a Spanish language resource coordinator and are working with the Korean community and other cultural partnerships in the state.”
Other educational partners are preparing to lend an assist with expansion.
“We’ve been developing some curricula to support initiatives in our health care arena that include a career pathway from patient transport to Certified Nursing Assistant, and from technicians who stock supply rooms to sterile processing,” said Jennifer Bukowitz, Continuing Education Nursing and Allied Health Program Director for Howard Community College. “We’d like to learn how we can collaborate.”
The University of Maryland Baltimore County Training Center has also been engaged through a Gula Tech Foundation grant to bring more neurodiversity — the concept that autism, dyslexia and other differences in brain functioning represent normal variations — to the cyber and IT fields, Rosenberg said. “We just started our first candidate and will be able to pay for certification training with some extra supports, and he will also be joining the apprenticeship program at HCC.”
Pete Pappas and Sons, a Jessup-based produce grower and distributor, has hired three employees to date through the Autism Hiring Program.
Those employees include Scott Wolfe, an executive assistant to President Paul Pappas.
“Members of my cohort talked about our individual problems finding work and communicating our skills and assets to employers,” Wolfe said. “HCAS helped us put together personal profiles to put in front of employers, and that made the difference in the introduction to Pappas and Sons.”
“HCAS really set us up for success and did an excellent job of matching our needs with candidates,” Paul Pappas acknowledged. “I don’t understand why other businesses don’t take advantage of this opportunity.”
Patrick Boxall, past president of the HCAS, said recent changes to the economy are forcing employers to think differently about how they recruit, interview, hire and support employees, and the Autism Hiring Program could show them a better way.
“I think it’s a great model that could be applied to a lot of different circumstances, and I’m optimistic that we can make this sustainable,” he said.
“There is so much talent out there just waiting to be tapped,” Perreault said. “This is an important community that is ready to go, and having supports and full wraparound service is going to be transformational.”
Caption: From left, Christiana Rigby (Howard County Council), Carol Beatty (Maryland Secretary of Disabilities), Patrick Boxall (past HCAS president), Sen. Ben Cardin, Melissa Rosenberg (HCAS), Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Congressman John Sarbanes and Doug DeHaan (Towson University) celebrate the award of $440,000 in federal funding to support the Howard County Autism Society’s Autism Hiring Program. (TBM / George Berkheimer)