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KATU: Portland State professor with autism wins $467,000 grant to study autism in the workplace
Author: Stuart Tomlinson, KATU
Posted: February 15, 2017

PORTLAND, Ore. — Keeping a good job has never been easy, but for the one percent of Americans with autism, it's even harder.

But one professor at Portland State University, who has autism herself, is hoping to change that.

Many people living on the autism spectrum are living successful lives. But some suffer from general quirks and idiosyncrasies that can limit -- not only getting a job -- but keeping it.

“I have obviously lived-experience and personal interest in maybe making the path easier than it was for me for people to come,” says assistant research professor, Dora Raymaker.

Raymaker recently won a $467,000 grant to study autism in the workplace.

“And also for people who didn't have opportunities that I had, you know, because there is an element of chance in these things,” Raymaker said.

Raymaker managed a communications system for a telecommunication company, but says while working there, she wasn't allowed to talk with clients because of her ... style.

So, she and OHSU doctor and professor Christina Nicolaidis formed AASPIRE, Academic Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education, 10 years ago to see what the autistic community wanted from research.

"My activism is what actually is what actually got me involved in research, so that kind of public coming out,” she said.

Raymaker -- who went on to earn her Ph.D. -- says the two grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and a Portland State University program funded by the National Institute of Health will pay to study 95 people with autism and those who work with them.

They'll be looking at success stories.

“We're very interested in jobs that require some kind of specialized training,” Raymaker explained. “So trades and professions; this is not about entry level work, it's about skilled labor.”

While he's not part of the study, Russell Pike, a technical writer for Creganna Medical in Tualatin, has been successfully working as a journalist and teacher.

But he says he struggled in personal relationships. In 2013 he was diagnosed with autism at age 62.

“I always knew that there was something different about me,” Pike said. “I always knew that I was strange. People have told me forever that I was weird.”

Pike says while there are no official accommodations at work, his supervisors are understanding about his sensitivity to light and loud noises. He thinks it's high time for this kind of study.

"It's very needed because there are many people that I know personally who've had very difficult outcomes in the workplace because of idiosyncrasies,” Pike said.

Raymaker said barriers for autistic people entering the workforce start right at the beginning due to the social component of the interview process. Autistic employees, she said, deserve reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

"Sometimes there’s a component of the job that needs to be modified in some way," Raymaker said.

See the interview here.