For adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a job is more than a paycheck.  It’s the opportunity for social interaction, it’s a boost for self-confidence and independence.    

With unemployment rates among adults with autism close to 66%, local service providers such as Delaware’s POW&R work hard at matching these potential workers with jobs – with some amazing success stories.

Yet, most of the hiring stories are told from the employee’s point of view.  What does an employer have to say about hiring people with ASD or other special needs?

Peter Bradley, Vice-President and General Manager of Casino Operations at Dover Downs Hotel and Casino in Delaware begins his story with, “It works for us.”

Peter has a personal connection with autism.   Liam, his first child and first son, was diagnosed with ASD.   He died at the age of twelve in 2007, following a seizure.

Honoring their son’s memory, his wife and he became advocates, volunteering with Autism Delaware to help the growing number of families struggling to help their ASD children obtain whatever level of independence they could.

Peter, now the Board President at Autism Delaware, knew that employment was key and decided to use the agency’s POW&R program for a new hire at Dover Downs.

POW&R, Productive Opportunities for Work & Recreation, works with young adults with ASD and their families, to help with the transition from school to employment.  POW&R job coaches work with the employer to match their clients with jobs, breaking down the individual tasks and easing the employee into the position.  They then fade back and remain off site.

This is not charity.

Rated as one of the best large companies for nine years in a row in a regional “Top Workplaces” survey, Dover Downs Hotel & Casino is important to the area’s economy.   With 500 hotel rooms, 2,400 slots and 40 table games and annual revenues of over one hundred forty million dollars, the resort has grown to employ nearly 1,400 full- and part-time employees; it’s one of the largest employers in Central Delaware.   That’s how Peter knew that the POW&R program would work for them.

“One of the reasons I always thought POW&R would be a good program for us to employ is that we have a variety of jobs, a plethora of them.  We have a lot more avenues and opportunities.”

Hiring at Dover Downs begins with an internship.  “The young person will come out and work in a given department or job function for a few weeks to see if he or she likes that.  Is it something they want to do?  No obligation.  They get the flavor for a certain position, will it work for them?

It’s a whole process, to set that young person up for success in what he or she is interested in doing.”

So, does it work?  What are the benefits to Dover Downs?

“We’re a for-profit business” he points out.  “And we have to deliver for our customers and be productive. Our POW&R folks are just typical employees, making a difference for us.

I can tell you one thing, we’re in the hospitality industry and we experience a lot of other food and beverage and hospitality industries, and there’s a significant turnover percentage.  Our POW&R participants? They learn the job and they show up.   They come for work day in, day out, and they do the job.  We don’t have the turnover.”

Peter recommends the POW&R program to other employers and he discounts any worry that a special needs hire will cost them money and efficiency.  “That’s one of the misconceptions,” he explains. “There’s minimum or no cost accommodations that you have to make.  Our Vice-President of HR, Janie Libby, is a big advocate of this and that’s what she says when she talks to other employers.  There’re just minimal accommodations you have to make – and a lot of them are common sense.  Small things.  It’s not going to impact the employer.”

POW&R is one of the many local programs geared to setting individuals with ASD up for success.  Learn more about it at Autism Delaware

Examples of good hires come easy to him.  “We have one individual, John, who works in the public areas and cleans the slot machines each morning.  They’re spotless and John is so productive.  He comes every day to work and does a phenomenal job.  When you talk to his management, they’re thrilled to have him as part of the team.  The stories are countless… they make a difference.

That’s one of the benefits for a company that employs folks with special needs, you get a valued employee.  It helps our bottom line, it’s not charity.

I’m so proud that I kicked open the door, but what happened since is that we went from one employee to now we’re up to over ten, and the employees and management team have embraced this.”

Peter is happy with the intangible benefits, too, both as a businessman and as an autism advocate.

“Our employees have learned about autism and are seeing folks on the spectrum,” he praises.  “Some of them have become advocates!  They’re volunteering for walks and other activities.  It’s been great to see them getting a better understanding of autism, and it’s so key to have our kids and young adults on the spectrum out in society and being in the public.  That’s been one of the intangible benefits.”

Peter the Autism Delaware volunteer is also grateful for the opportunities given to the POW&R hires.  “It’s rewarding for me to see some of these people just blossom and develop.  Besides doing the job, there’s the social interactions, and engaging with folks, and being out in the work place, it’s a significant improvement in their quality of life.

“You’d see someone who would barely say, ‘Hello’ and now they’re asking you, ‘How’s your day going?’ They’re interacting with the customers with self-confidence to do the job.  This carries through to all facets of life for that individual.”

His advice to businesses looking for new hires is succinct.   “Don’t be afraid to try this.  Put your toe in the water.  It could be a simple internship with no obligations.

Talk to other companies.  Managers and directors talk to each other and they know this program works and they’re getting valued employees, it’s really win-win.

It’s the old adage, you focus on the ability, not the disability.

It’s been a great story.”

Considering hiring a person with ASD?  The US Department of Labor has a FAQ sheet of resources to help with the process.

Autism Speaks also offers information and resources for individuals with ASD, their families and employers.



Lora Lewis is a multi-platform content creator who covers a wide variety of topics and loves the art of conversation.

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