‘Good for Business’: Employees with autism spectrum disorder shine on the job

Jennifer Stoll has two sons in their early 20s who are on the autism spectrum. She knew when they were young boys that their neurodiversity would create challenges for them when the time came to enter the workforce.

“I started preparing them when they were younger to create a really good hard-work ethic,” she said. “Our jobs give so much fullness to our lives and I was always concerned with that.”

Jennifer’s concern is justified, as more than half of young adults with autism remain unemployed and unenrolled in higher education in the two years after high school. This is a lower rate than that of young adults in other disability categories, according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy group that sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities in the United States.

Jennifer’s sons Jacob Stoll and Evan Stoll have Aspergers and attention deficit disorder. In spite of their intelligence, interviewing sparks social anxiety that often leave the job seekers at the bottom of the list, even though they are qualified for the position.

“It is just harder [for them] to get through that interview process,” said Jennifer Stoll. “Once they are there, they work their butts off. People on the spectrum are really awesome. They are great employees. They just communicate differently.”

In 2017, Jennifer Stoll played a role in bringing Autism Alliance to northern Michigan. She is also the chairperson for a steering committee for a neurodiversity employment pilot program through Autism Alliance, which has joined forces with Upbound at Work in Northern Michigan, which educates businesses, agencies, and the community about the potential talent within the disability community.

Upbound at Work has placed 170 people with disabilities into competitive employment positions since 2017, but only a handful in the Traverse City area, according to Autism Alliance Chief Program Officer Tammy Morris.

Some of the companies that have participated in the program include TentCraft, RJG, Skilled Manufacturing Inc. and the State of Michigan to name a few. Upbound at Work currently has about 30 job seekers in the area.

“We are working to meet employers and job seekers, meeting with schools and colleges, and fundraising to be able to support a full-time team member to remain in the Traverse area,” said Morris.

Nationally, bigger companies like Ford, UBS, Apple and IBM have already embraced neurodiveristy in the work place, but in smaller markets, like northern Michigan, it has not caught on so fast, Jennifer Stoll said.

“It has been slower than hoped,” she said. “Because the people that have disabilities — not the ones in wheelchairs — sometimes find it is awkward and uncomfortable and they don’t talk about it or disclose it.”

When neurodiverse individuals find jobs, it is not always in the field that they are most qualified for.

Nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job, according to Autism Speaks.

Jennifer Stoll’s son Jacob has an IQ of 126 and works at Meijer collecting shopping carts in the parking lot. He is also attending Northwestern Michigan College for an associate’s degree in applied sciences and drones. Ultimately, Jennifer hopes he is as fortunate as her other son Evan, who has found a job that he enjoys and an employer that embraces workers on the autism spectrum.

Evan Stoll works at RJG as a software programmer.

Evan Stoll is one of three software programmers with RJG, a Traverse City technology company that works with the plastic injection molding industry.

The 23-year-old wears dark-rimmed glasses, speaks bluntly and is articulate, to which he credits a public speaking class. He has worked at RJG since February 2016 and has taken on more responsibility, while continuing to pursue his bachelor’s at Ferris University via distance education.

As he stood at his desk surrounded by three computer monitors, he typed quickly as lines of code scrolled on the monitor in front of him, all while talking with his boss Mike Groleau, who stood behind him.

Groleau is the owner of RJG. He earned an engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a masters from the University of Michigan. He has a soft spot in his heart for people who are on the autism spectrum, because he, too, has a form of autism — Tourette syndrome, which presents as a subtle tic that consists of a blink in one eye — which alternates from eye to eye — and an occasional shrug of the shoulder.

“It is something I have an appreciation for,” Groleau said. “Fortunately for me [the syndrome] is not so severe that I am cussing violently.”

RJG owner Mike Groleau

Over the years, he has found that talking about his condition helps ease awkward situations and quells any concerns or questions.

“I have had people ask me if everything is okay,” Groleau said. “And I just tell them that it is my Tourettes. Over the years I have learned to be more open, because when somebody is behaving in a certain way and others don’t understand why — it creates concern and confusion.”

He recalls a time when his daughter’s friend and he were sitting around a campfire talking. As soon as Groleau walked away, the friend had questions.

“He asked my daughter, ‘Was your dad winking at me?’” Groleau said, while laughing. “It can create an uncomfortable situation. So I have to let others know for as much as my benefit as theirs.”

Evan Stoll’s openness about his autism has been key in his success at RJG, Groleau said.

“It really helped us to coach him and understand what was going on,” Groleau said.  “So our people knew how to interact with him.”

He added that there were a few challenges at first, including some socially awkward moments and communication difficulties.

But since he was able to communicate to his coworkers and supervisors about his condition, they were able to give him cues to let him know that there are better ways to express his feelings and thoughts about a situation.

“He was very open to feedback,” Groleau said. “That really helped with the process of fitting in and acclimating.”

But it hasn’t always been easy for the software programmer to talk about his condition. He never wanted people, such as employers or his professors, to think he was using it as an excuse.

“A lot of people don’t know what the spectrum of autism is like,” Evan Stoll said, explaining that there is a rift in the autism awareness community between high-functioning autistic people and others who have motor skill deficiencies. “Half of the time when you say autistic, people will think you will need help walking around. I think if I put autistic on my CV, people might look at that and say, ‘I don’t want this guy.’”

Evan Stoll said that initially his supervisor at RJG even had doubts about him working there.

“The current engineering architect actually vouched for me and said you have to look at this guy and see what his proficiencies are,” he said. “You can not judge someone properly if you are only looking at their deficiencies.”

The Company

RJG is located along the Boardman River in Traverse City.

RJG was founded by Groleau’s father Rod in 1987 and is tucked away on Park Drive in Traverse City along the Boardman River.

“It started as a one-man training and consulting business,” Groleau said.

In the parking lot near the building is a basketball hoop and in an adjacent wooded area is a five-hole disc golf course. In the bathrooms are scales and workers are given incentives to eat healthy and exercise. Throughout the building there is a Zen-like quality as workers quietly and calmly carry out their duties — either soldering sensors to circuit boards or programming software.

In a cubicle-free room with large windows, software programmers sit at their desk typing. On a shelf near Evan’s desk there sat several Nerf guns and soft darts.

“What can I say, we are a quirky bunch,” Groleau said, as he looked at the toy guns. “We work hard and we like to have fun.”

The company employs about 90 people at the Traverse City facility and has other offices in eight countries.

At the Traverse City office, there are a couple of large conference rooms that are used for training, but Groleau said employees retain more when receiving hands-on training. At one end of the building, several plastic mold presses are used to train employees.

The company started to see most of its growth when the technology division was incorporated. When Groleau started in 1995, he said the company had about 30 employees.

“We have had some steady growth as technology has improved and gotten traction in the industry,” he said.

The main industries that RJG works with are automotive and medical. Sensors created by RJG help monitor the process, improve quality and reduce costs when molding plastic components.

“The quality expectations are high,” Groleau said. “Manual inspection is unreliable and expensive. Essentially what we are doing is automating the inspection process. We are saving our clients a lot of money as quality expectations have gone up. There has also been a greater demand for efficiency in the industry to drive waste out.”

Before RJG

Evan Stoll got his foot in the door at RJG thanks to a friend and an internship through college. Prior to working at RJG, he said he struggled to land a job that he enjoyed.

“A lot of people, I want to say, were resistant to my behavior,” Evan said. “I didn’t mesh well. I tried to talk to them and either I was not super up on the math in school or I was introverted.”

He says he is now comfortable working at RJG. He said one of the areas he needs to work on is communicating with his coworkers. However, he does credit his condition to helping him in his job.

“I have a very strong attention to detail. I am always asking questions and trying to figure out if this is the right thing to do,” he said. “One of the worst things you can do as a software developer is to make the wrong assumption.”

Now that he has been on the job, he has gained confidence and believes he is better equipped to deal with social issues that arise in the workplace or during a job interview. However, he has no plans on leaving RJG any time soon. He fears that he would have to get to know a whole new set of co-workers.

Research shows that jobs that encourage independence reduce autism symptoms and increase daily living skills, according to Autism Speaks.

“I have definitely seen an improvement in him,” Jennifer Stoll said.

Although employees are expected to perform a certain way while interviewing for a job or in the workplace, Jennifer Stoll believes employers need to be more aware and receive training to recognize qualified candidates who are on the autism spectrum.

Currently, Autism Alliance is raising money for a full-time person to help companies and train businesses to become more autism-friendly in their hiring.

Over the years, Groleau has become more aware of potential employees that may have been on the spectrum and didn’t make it through the interview process.

“The interview is a difficult social situation and for someone who is on the autism spectrum it is a real challenge,” Groleau said. “Today when it is so difficult to find real talent — not only is it a waste of human capital, but it is a waste of good people. It is not only good for the employee, but good for the business.”