How a new job fair is battling the stigma around autism

How a new job fair is battling the stigma around autism

Twice a week you can find Mark Liotta making sandwiches, tracking inventory and taking orders at the Geneva Centre for Autism's Stepping Stones Café.

"I'm generally very friendly with all the customers," said Liotta, who has autism, a few minutes after a wrapping up a morning shift.

"Getting to know people, it makes me feel like I'm welcome."

It's a volunteer role the 29-year-old enjoys, but it also serves as a much-needed respite from a job search that has now dragged on for six months.

"It's exhausting," said Liotta. "I've gone through several job applications and interviews, not getting anywhere. So as you can imagine this is getting to be pretty frustrating."

At interviews, Liotta says hiring managers often fail to acknowledge his unique skill set, which includes computer fluency, organization and people skills — "I've got a great personality," he says — and instead, focus on his autism.

It's all made worse when those employers have an incorrect or negative perception of the condition.

"I get the vibe that some of these employers might not be comfortable hiring somebody with autism," he said.

Creating opportunity

Liotta is hopeful that Monday could be a turning point in his search, when he attends the Spectrum Works job fair, which is billing itself as Toronto's first-ever job fair for youth with autism.

Gay Lea Foods, Scotiabank, Sunwing Airlines and the IT firm Compugen will be among the 10 employers with job opportunities taking part in the event at the Scarborough Civic Centre.

While organizer Xavier Pinto's seven-year-old son is a few years away from entering the job market, he believes it's critical that he start chipping away at the stigma around autism.

"The whole reason of the job fair is to create opportunities for kids like him," said Pinto of his son Xavi, who was nonverbal at the time of his diagnosis but has since made huge developmental strides.

"He is a brilliant kid who acquires knowledge he wants," said Pinto.

Pinto says people on the autism spectrum display a range of abilities as wide as the spectrum itself, meaning suitable work depends on each individual's skill set.

Xavi, Pinto imagines, might someday excel in a job that requires the performance of a consistent task to exacting standards.

Despite his social skills, Liotta too says his ideal job would include some type of data-entry component, an area in which he's already experienced.

Employers coming on board

Michael Barrett, president and CEO of Gay Lea Foods, says a data-entry position along those lines might be available with his company.

He says Gay Lea Foods will have positions available across its operation, from processing plants to its head office in Mississauga.

The company does not currently employ anyone on the autism spectrum, but Barrett says doing so could be both a smart business decision and a boon for the culture of his company.

"We talk about communities — it's important that we extend opportunities to every community," he said.

Mark Liotta would welcome the chance.

"If given the opportunity," he said. "I can do pretty much anything that's asked of me."