WXXI AM News

WATCH: Adults With Autism Seek Employment at Inaugural Job Fair

May 6, 2015

Zakarya Banks is one of nearly 100 applicants in attendance at Rochester's first job fair for adults living with autism.
Credit SASHA-ANN SIMONS/WXXI NEWS

Many families with children with autism describe leaving high school as a ‘falling off a cliff’ - because of the lack of services when they become adults. Add to that, a complicated and intimidating job hunt. Despite the obstacles that people with autism face trying to find work, a new, dedicated job fair in Rochester, New York may be the first step to help that community find employment.

It’s been a year since Zakarya Banks moved to Rochester from Philadelphia. In that time he’s not only struggled to get used to the city’s temperature roller coaster, but he’s been hard pressed to hold down a job.

“My aunt hit me with four texts and a call,” he says.

Aunt Evelyn informed Banks of a job fair, held in mid-April, geared toward adults living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Banks has Asperger syndrome, which is considered to be on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. That diagnosis in middle school made sense of why he had been so socially awkward.

“I’m looking you in the eyes. I never did that before the age of 12. I’d be looking at your shoes and not really conversing with you at all,” Banks says.

And the quirky behavior continues.

“I play video games somewhere between 12 to 13 hours a day. I do martial arts for every other hour in a day and I’ll do that regardless of where I’m at. If I read a book, I’ll read it all the way through, 3000 pages, I’m up all night until the next day,” he added.

Breaking Down Barriers

The United Nations reports that more than 80% of adults with autism are unemployed around the world. That stark statistic is what prompted The Autism Council of Rochester to host the job fair.

“No one is actually looking outside the box to connect them to some sort of opportunity. Whether it’s customized, whether it’s an hour a week of working, we’ve got to get them out and contributing to our community,” says Lawana Jones, Founder and Executive Director of the council.

Part of the reason that young adults struggle after high school is the shortage of specialized vocational training opportunities, and inadequate support in job placement. Also a key characteristic of ASD is difficulty knowing how to interpret social interactions.

“People with Asperger syndrome, sometimes we’re tough to deal with. I personally get very frank and I tend to cut with my words sometimes,” says Banks.

"A lot of these companies are here just advertising for labor and cleaning. I think many of us are capable of so much more than that."

At 24, he credits a solid upbringing by two parents whom were both teachers with helping him cope with the developmental disorder. His father forced him to engage with people and processes in different ways, and to learn how to function in the real world.

Banks finished high school, but has so far skipped college. He left home at 18, and has worked. Though, his last gig at a bakery back in Philadelphia didn’t work out well.

“The facets of my brain that are like OCD - mixed with a baker’s OCD, it was just not a good combination,” he says.

Entering The Workforce With Autism

“From the resumes that I’ve gathered and people who have come – they’re skilled. They have the background and education to do these jobs, so it’s a shame that they don’t get the opportunity to prove it,” says Desiree Wilson of Action for a Better Community.

Wilson is one of six recruiters who met with job seekers at the fair. There were 12 companies registered, however Lawana Jones insists she will follow up with the half that didn’t show up. 

“We’ll meet next week to talk about it and also the opportunities that we can have to work with the Rochester Business Alliance. We’ll look at what we can do for Upstate New York, and knowing that Bob Duffy has the connection with Albany – what can we do to build on that?”

One criticism of the job fair came from a woman living with autism during a question and answer session with Jones.

“A lot of these companies are here just advertising for labor and cleaning. I think many of us are capable of so much more than that,” the woman says. 

Still, nearly 100 potential candidates stopped by the autism job fair with high hopes of landing something. Jones thinks it won’t be long before more companies realize they are missing out on a hiring opportunity. In the meantime, she and her team are planning for the next job fair in mid-September. They’re looking to add employment agencies to the mix, increasing the odds for those living with autism to enter the workforce.