People with autism spectrum disorders have a lot to offer in the workplace, especially if employers can learn to make the right accommodations.
That conviction is part of what drives Britney Huff, who finished her coursework in December in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies and will walk the Lawn in May as a University of Virginia graduate.
It’s not just theoretical for Huff; she helped launch and grow a pilot program that places students with autism at her workplace in Charlottesville. That project would both grow into a model that a local nonprofit is using with many more employers and serve as the basis for Huff’s capstone project for her bachelor’s degree.
When she graduated from Albemarle High School near Charlottesville, Huff decided to attend community college before pursuing a four-year degree.
She started working and taking classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College. “I had originally planned to study nursing, but through Piedmont I was able to survey a wide range of courses, including several business and psychology classes, and quickly discovered a passion for business. I realized that nursing was not the route for me,” she said. “But I still had a desire to help others.”
During her time at PVCC, she worked a number of jobs in the Charlottesville area, gaining diverse and valuable professional experience across a number of industries. After receiving her associate degree, she began working for a Charlottesville-based electronics retailer, Crutchfield. Her career progressed and was rewarding, she said, but she didn’t give up on finishing her bachelor’s degree.
After a role change at Crutchfield, she came to UVA, drawn to the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, which is designed for working adults who have some college credits, but no degree. Huff is one of 11 BIS students who finished their coursework in December.
“My desire to be a stronger leader with greater impact within our organization and the community really motivated me to obtain my degree,” she said. “I have a love for learning and personal development.”
Huff’s studies in the business concentration dovetailed well with her work, and she said she appreciated both the access to faculty members and the experience of learning with other working adults, who brought their own personal and professional histories into the classroom.
“These folks take ownership of their own education,” she said.
The experience also gave her a chance to focus on an emerging interest in working with people with autism spectrum disorders, or ASD.
An Autism Advocate
Huff became aware of the programs at the Virginia Institute of Autism through her connection to Shane Racer, one of the special educators and program coordinators there.
As she interacted more with the autism community, Huff said she realized that vocational training and work opportunities were difficult to come by for many learners with ASD. VIA knew there was a need for more such training, but placement rates were very low. There were too few opportunities at area workplaces, and employers didn’t have a good model to follow to create placement programs.
“They kept running up against a wall with employers, because there is very little awareness about the wide range of capabilities that many people with ASD have,” she said.
Huff teamed up with the human resources team and legal counsel at Crutchfield, and helped pilot a program that allowed VIA students to perform office functions and other work. Such programs require some accommodations by the employers, but are hugely beneficial for both the workplace and the participants, she said.
“Students from VIA add value to our organization by completing tasks such as filling fruit bowls, writing thank-you cards to customers, restocking, organizing and cleaning community areas, and watering plants,” Huff said. “We have hopes to expand their roles within our organization.”
The pilot was a success, and VIA took note. The organization used the model to expand to more regional employers, and student workplace placement increased substantially.
“More students are being served than ever in the past,” she said.
Tying it All Together
Huff’s two worlds – her education and her interest in helping those with autism – came together in her capstone project at SCPS. During her studies, she’d taken a course from Rose Nevill, a professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development who specializes in autism.
Nevill would go on to become Huff’s capstone project adviser.
“Britney was impressive to me because she was one of the few students in the course who had experience working with people in autism,” Nevill said.
And the work she was gravitating toward – helping those with autism prepare to find employment – is "a huge issue," Nevill said.
Huff was motivated to help figure out how to match workers on the autism spectrum with good employment opportunities, Nevill said.
“This is something that the field of autism research is starting to adopt more and more, but we have a long way to go. It was really refreshing to see an undergraduate student recognize this,” she said.
Each person is different, but both Nevill and Huff said that workers with autism have a lot to offer employers.
“We’re speaking in generalizations here, but people with autism may pay more attention to detail, to systems or mechanics. They can do really well with mathematics and engineering; they can be very detail-oriented, which may work really well within teams,” Nevill said. “So there’s a hole to fill.”
Huff’s capstone project looked at the best ways businesses can make reasonable accommodations for workers with autism. The key, Huff found, was for businesses to take an individualized approach with regard to training, career progression and management, and not assume that all people with autism are the same.
“Microsoft, SAP, and other companies have introduced successful adaptive and inclusive workforce programs, and every single one of them reiterated the importance taking a more individualized approach,” she said.
One particularly important outcome from Huff’s research was her understanding that taking an individualized approach does more than just help individuals with ASD; it allows organizations and managers to better lead and support all employees. Huff cited a leader at one company who said the program to integrate workers with autism also allowed her to better manage all of her employees, because she was taking time to better understand their strengths and challenges.
The entire project showed Huff the need to better integrate people with autism into their local communities.
“There’s a tremendous importance to these efforts and I am glad to see it gaining momentum,” she said. “It all begins with community visibility. It is extremely important to increasing understanding and awareness of the strengths of individuals with ASD, and this has to begin at an early age.”
Huff said she’s happy in her career and enjoys working at Crutchfield, and said she’s also interested in eventually pursuing an MBA. At some point in the future, she’d also like to launch a business to support the employment of individuals with ASD.
“I want to continue learning, and I want to continue growing from a leadership standpoint,” she said. “And outside of that, I want to continue to be engaged with the ASD community.”
The University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies helps working adults finish their degrees and advance their careers. SCPS offers online and in-person programs, bringing high-quality, accessible and affordable education to all Virginians.