Class project has a big impact

May 11, 2016

“We’re going to spend the whole semester on one project,” said HCC Professor Sean Colcleasure to his English 102 class. “Create a project that makes your community better.”

Colcleasure implements service learning into his curriculum every year. This educational approach balances formal instruction with the opportunity to serve the community. It also allows students to apply what they learn in the classroom to the “real world.”

“I feel connecting students with real world experience in any way helps them see the impact of the work they are doing. It also shows that the work they are doing matters,” Colcleasure said.

Student Michael Mace knew right away what he wanted to do.

Past Experiences Spawn Idea

Just one day prior, Mace spoke with a woman who had a 22-year old son with autism. She told him how her son went in for a job interview but never heard back from the company. Her theory is that her son had a bad interview due to his social skills.

Michael Mace“He was perfectly capable of performing the job,” commented Mace. “It was really unfortunate.”

Mace has heard similar stories before. His twin brother has autism. “I grew up in the autism community,” he said. “I remember realizing at a young age that my brother is going to have a hard time getting a job. Now and even back then, I wanted to do something to help him and other kids get through the interview process.”

With a charge from Professor Colcleasure and his own past experiences, Mace and a team of classmates created the Autism Workforce Development Project. The main goal is not to find resources (Mace indicates there are plenty of those), but to help organizations better understand autism and how to work with people who have it.

Petition is Key to Support

As part of the project, Mace and his group put together a petition. Once it was shared on Facebook, it really took off and currently has more than 600 supporters.

The petition serves as proof that the community supports the students’ efforts and calls upon mayors Tari Renner (City of Bloomington) and Chris Koos (Town of Normal) to encourage businesses to include more individuals with autism in the workforce. The mayors and state representative Dan Brady voiced their support at a press conference on April 4, 2016 at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Normal.

Simple Accommodations Provide Big Payoff

Ultimately, the project wants workplaces to provide the necessary accommodations for everyone. Mace says modifications for workers are minor and “not a big deal.”

According to the Autism Research Institute, children and adults with autism may have a dysfunctional sensory system where their senses are either over-or under-reactive to stimulation. This may cause the individual to engage in behaviors such as rocking, spinning and hand-flapping. Integrating certain techniques can reduce these types of urges.

For example, if a worker is sensitive to noise yet works in a loud factory, that individual should wear ear phones. Lights can be dimmed for those who are sensitive to brightness. Even sitting on an exercise ball as opposed to a traditional desk chair can provide balanced stimulation for ultimate work performance.

The payoff for making simple accommodations can be huge for employers. In their petition, Mace and his team state that employees with autism have a lower turnover rate compared to other labor pools because those individuals usually like routine and are dependable and loyal. Additionally, workers with autism typically have precise accuracy and the ability to perform repetitive tasks. It also adds a level of diversity to the workplace. “Integrating people with disabilities into a job setting generates an uplifting environment and increased customer satisfaction,” the petition states. “It also develops workers’ skills.”

Future Plans

With the semester coming to a close, Colcleasure says he is proud of Mace and his team. “They put in a lot of effort and worked hard. Key figures in the community believed in them and what they were asking for.”

The next step for the Autism Workforce Development Project is to host a panel of speakers at a future event to explain more about the project’s goals and efforts to the business community. Meanwhile, Mace encourages others to sign the petition to show their support.

“Growing up I knew it would be my job to advocate,” Mace commented. “I feel like I was put in this position for a reason.”

Written by: Becky Gropp