For nearly four years, Bharathy Vivekanantham has been trying to figure how to get individuals with autism employed. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that, very broadly stated, impacts brain development, affecting communication and social skills, among other areas. One in 66 Canadians lives with autism, and they face the highest unemployment rate among those with disabilities. According to a 2013 Ontario study, just 14 per cent of adults on the autism spectrum work full time. Another six per cent work part time.
After completing her undergraduate degree in Health Studies, Bharathy found herself at the SAAAC Autism Centre – an autism charity that supports newcomer and low-income families impacted by autism.
“I volunteered with SAAAC for a few years during my undergrad, and during that time the organization’s founder, Geetha Moorthy, wanted to initiate a project to help our older students who had trouble finding support services after graduating high school,” says Bharathy. “It was a problem I, for some reason, became interested in. It felt wrong that so many individuals with autism found themselves with little to no support in their adult years. I wanted to do something about it.”
In 2016, Bharathy and SAAAC initiated an ambitious employment training program. With support from Employment and Social Development Canada, the program focused on training young adults with autism and connecting them to local employment partners. By September 2018, the program had helped 50 young adults — some with the initial support of a job coach – work at jobs ranging from folding towels and linen at a hotel, to settling tables and welcoming guests at a restaurant and filing at a local law firm. Some of the students were then hired full-time or part-time following the 24-week program.
During this period, Bharathy also spearheaded the Holiday Gift Basket Initiative – a seasonal employment initiative that gives young adults their first experience with paid employment.
“The concept is pretty straightforward: our team of 4-5 young adults put together Christmas gift baskets for purchase from local businesses and community members.” Says Bharathy. “In the process they learn to work in teams, exercise their creative skills, follow instructions, and ultimately get compensated for their time and effort.” Since 2017, the program has offered 15 students valuable experience with paid employment.
In 2019, Bharathy will face some big challenges. Government funding comes to an end for her employment program and she oversees a growing wait list of adults looking for employment opportunities. “We have to make do,” says Bharathy. “We can’t just rely on government funding to solve this problem. We as an organization and as a community need to figure out alternative ways to include these young adults into our everyday systems, including our economic system.”
One of the ways Bharathy and SAAAC are trying to continue their work is creating unique ways to showcase the skillsets of their students. One of those initiatives is SAAAC’s Holiday Market.
“It’s a market organized and run by adults on the autism spectrum,” says Bharathy. “From creating the snacks and hot chocolate we’ll be selling; to processing payments; to setting up our event and cleaning up – it will be done by our students. We like to call it a functional fundraiser where our students get to practice their skills in a real-world setting, get a platform to showcase their skills, and raise some money to further job and independent living skills training at SAAAC.”
For families, an initiative like this is a sight some thought would never be possible.
“It's really emotional for me to see my son participate in an event like this,” says Lakshmi Solomons, a mother of an energetic 24 year old with autism. "As a parent of a child with autism, you sometimes get caught up with their challenges and you forget the potential they do have. In preparation for this event, I am seeing him working as part of a team, practising customer service, and even helping to bake...it's amazing to see he is capable of such things. He just needed the opportunity and the right teachers."
Bharathy is hoping events like this motivate her community to integrate individuals with autism and related developmental disorders into daily life, including the work place.
"Sometimes all it takes is seeing these guys in action to know what they are capable of," says Bharathy. “I feel sometimes we are so blinded by our preconceived notions of autism and disabilities in general that we do not even consider employment a possibility, but it’s not true. With the right supports, encouragement and patience, it is very much possible.”
Advocating for greater inclusion in the work place seems to be part of a larger purpose for Bharathy.
"The measure of any great society is to see how they treat their most vulnerable, and if we keep working hard to include all, to support all, we’re building an incredible world for future generations. Being a part of that process seems like the right path for me.”
You can support the efforts of Bharathy and SAAAC, by visiting their Holiday Market (details below):
- Date/Time: Saturday, Dec 15, 1 pm – 4 pm
- Location: SAAAC Autism Centre (705 Progress Avenue Unit 63; Scarborough, ON M1H-2X1)