By Sarah McKinney Gibson, Next Avenue
“I’m usually hesitant to ask for help,” says Mark Fiorito, a 32-year-old Lynbrook, N.Y. jobseeker on the autism spectrum. “But what I was doing wasn’t working, so I was up for trying something new.”
That meant creating a profile on the autism-friendly jobs portal Hire Autism, run by the nonprofit Organization for Autism Research. It offers the option of being paired with an experienced mentor for one-on-one support.
That’s how Fiorito began getting mentored virtually by Lori Gabrek, 57, of Noblesville, Ind., who has coached 11 jobseekers through the site. “She understands me better than a lot of people do. I sometimes feel like everyone speaks a different language, and now I have a translator,” says Fiorito.
There’s a reason why Gabrek understands Fiorito so well.
“My son is on the spectrum,” she says. “He’s twenty-six now and very high functioning, but I supported him through the college years and the job search. It was a pretty eye-opening experience.”
Gabrek also has done a lot of hiring as the VP of a small medical refrigeration company in Indiana.
Extra Challenges for Job Seekers on the Spectrum
She acknowledges that the job interview process can be nerve-racking for anyone. “But imagine how it is for someone who is very literal or has social anxiety,” she says.
Fiorito has a college degree, five years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry and another two in financial services. Like many others on the spectrum, however, he’s had gaps in his employment. Even before the pandemic, researchers estimate that more than 75% of adults on the spectrum were unemployed or underemployed.
Several nonprofits, in addition to Hire Autism, are trying to change that.
Teaching the Autism Community Trades (TACT), for instance, trains young adults on the autism spectrum in auto mechanics, carpentry, electrical work, welding and computer science. Another one, Integrate (formerly ASTEP), helps companies recruit and train college grads on the spectrum. And Aspiritech hires and trains individuals on the autism spectrum for software and QA testing jobs.
What makes Hire Autism different is its focus on recruiting mentors like Gabrek. Launched in 2017, it has engaged dozens of mentors and helped hundreds of job seekers on the spectrum.
Gabrek’s advice to these job hunters: “It starts with what they’re good at and what makes them happy. Then we translate that into a job.”
Says Fiorito: “If it weren’t for her, I don’t think I’d be as good about updating my resumé or writing cover letters. She keeps me motivated and helps me identify where I have transferable skills. She helps me word things so they match the job description. Instead of taking several hours to apply to a job, it now only takes a fraction of that time.”
Fiorito says he appreciates Gabrek’s patience and understanding above all.
How Mentoring Helps the Applicants and Mentors
“She’s taking her time and energy to help me out,” he says. “If I meet someone else on the spectrum and they’re job searching, I’ll be the first to mention this mentorship opportunity.”
People need to understand, Gabrek says, that the challenges some on the autism spectrum have at work — like not noticing social cues or picking up on subtleties in a meeting — are small compared to the value these employees bring.
She wants more employers to understand that. “We need to do better,” she says.
Being a mentor, Gabrek says, doesn’t just help the job hunters she’s working with. “This is giving me something to feel hopeful about. It’s a way I can share my experience and help.”
Fiorito and Gabrek stay in touch over email, using Google Docs to edit resumés and cover letters.
“Mark is very bright and has already done a lot of homework,” says Gabrek. “He’s very coachable and takes advice well. He’ll find his job. I know he will.”