If You Build IT, They Will Come

Everyone wants their child to succeed in school and in the workforce, with many children and young adults needing a helping hand to guide them along the way. For those living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this guidance can be even more important, as they may miss out on significant opportunities and experience difficulties related to the social world around them. Going on a job interview or understanding the responsibilities of a workday can be a particular challenge for them. However, people on the spectrum have a lot to offer, especially in the field of IT, where they can bring their high attention to detail, intense focus, memory, and dedication to getting the job done to the workforce. That’s where Level IT Up comes in.

Taking a cue from such successful programs as Alberta’s Meticulon and Minnesota’s Mind Shift, Anne Kresta and her small but devoted team are launching Level IT Up in Winnipeg this January. Kresta, whose two sons (both in their mid-20s and on the spectrum) are just entering the workforce after graduating from post-secondary education, wants to see this program thrive in Winnipeg’s growing tech industry.

“When he started his first summer job, my son didn’t know he was entitled to breaks and a lunch,” Kresta says. “Those are sort of unspoken rules of the workplace. Because I checked in and asked what he did on his break, we learned he wasn’t taking breaks or lunch, and he was coming home exhausted from a long day of work. It’s things like that that many people on the spectrum miss. What do you wear? What’s appropriate to talk about? Who do you go to when you have a question about the work you are doing?”

Kresta explains that, in addition to helping outline a workday, Level IT Up also goes over bullying and harassment, as social norms aren’t always clear.

“We know, as parents, we have to keep checking in. We can’t go into the workplace with them and we wouldn’t want to,” she says with a laugh. “But, we have to be behind the scenes, helping them work through and maintain employment, so that they don’t lose it over an easily preventable situation.”

What the current employment landscape needs, Kresta notes, is ongoing support to help those with ASD manage in the workplace (without their parents or loved ones having to guess at what questions to ask, and how to learn what is happening on a day-to-day basis).

She adds that potential employers need to understand how to interact with candidates with ASD, which is something Level IT Up will explain to each company during the orientation process.

“They need to understand how best to support the individuals we’re bringing forward, and we, as a business, need to be there to provide that ongoing support,” she says. “That’s the missing piece for both the employer and the employee with ASD. They need someone they can call and say, ‘I’m not sure what’s going on here, something doesn’t feel right. How do I work through this situation?’ Having that person to check in with, even when they think things are going well, to make sure there’s nothing going on underneath that they’re not aware of, is important.”

After an initial introduction event allowing potential candidates with ASD to meet with Level IT Up staff and advisors, those interested and eligible to proceed will begin a three week training and orientation period. This training process is conducted in a simulated worksite, at which Level IT Up candidates, alongside their trainer (acting as a “workplace supervisor”), work through a curriculum that has been adapted from Meticulon. While many ASD employment companies utilize creative problem solving exercises with Lego in place of a job interview, Level IT Up uses that tool as an icebreaker during the introduction event.

“As an observer you’d be looking for some of those special skills that would transfer into really great job skills,” Kresta says. “Instead of using (a Lego build) as part of a job interview, we want to use it as a way of attracting folks with ASD to come and meet with us. We get to know them, they get to know us through this fun Lego Mindstorm event, and from there we would go into a three week training process, built on what Meticulon does.”

While Level IT Up shares ideas and practices with these other ASD-focused employment companies, its focus is slightly different, in that it specifically focuses on the IT field, in addition to ensuring a positive first workplace experience for everyone involved.

“The idea is to get the person ready for employment, whether that means full time or part time, and they’re going to have to get used to what a work day looks like,” Kresta says. “The training will be structured so that they will be coming to work expected to dress and act like they would be in a workplace. They’re expected to develop their technical skills but also on-the-job behaviour.”

Utilizing Lego builds and other exercises to help identify skills, gaps, and areas of asset and challenge, a personal profile is created and shared with the candidate. This visual mind map acts as a resume to show the individual where their strengths and weaknesses are, and can even be used in the employment application process.

“Working with the employer, we’d be sourcing opportunities the candidate can apply to,” Kresta explains, noting that each successful Level IT Up candidate would operate as a consultant to an employer, resulting in those employers contracting with Level IT Up for specific consultant services. “This would enable Level IT Up to charge a finder’s fee and pay for the job coaching and training. We’re looking at different funding models.”

In addition to applying for government grants, Level IT Up is getting things done with the help of a small but loyal Board of Directors. Made up of Kresta, Talentcor Winnipeg Branch Manager Melissa Harju, and St. Amant Communications Director Jennifer Rodrigue, each member brings something unique to the company (Harju is a recruiter, while Rodrigue can navigate the marketing world). Kresta will likely take on the role of Executive Director once Level IT Up is up and running.

While Kresta is excited to get things going, she’s conscious of the fact that getting too big too fast can be an issue. Keeping the team small (for now) is a good thing – it allows them to focus on the individual, giving them all the attention they deserve.

“Many adults with ASD feel like they’ve been failures all their life or that they’d never fit in, but they have these amazing gifts,” she says. “We’re going to help uncover that gift so they can use them to achieve some of the things they want in life.”