Autism Job Club
The following is an excerpt from Michael S. Bernick and Richard Holden‘s The Autism Job Club, which is now available. If you like what you see, please purchase a copy of this excellent book!
Chapter 15: Autism, Craft and Calling
It is through the values of craft and calling that will come additional hiring of adults with autism in the practical economy.
The autism-focused businesses, major employer initiatives and employer outreaches set out in the previous chapter are necessary, but not sufficient. They must be tied to answering how adults with autism bring advantage to employers in the practical economy. The answer in turn lies in the qualities of craft that adults with autism bring to the practical economy, and can be the autism community’s competitive advantage.
Craft and calling are not new concepts. But they are finding new relevance in the American economy, especially in the practical economy.
I. The Re-emergence of Craft in the Practical Economy
First, let’s start with the re-discovery of craft, in the unlikely venue of television.
In the early 2000s, it would have been difficult to find anyone in the entertainment industry predicting the popularity of “work reality” television shows about bakers, car repairpersons and hair stylists. Yet, these shows appeared in the next few years, found an audience in the general public and brought fresh insights about work. Work reality shows such as “Cake Boss”, “America’s Next Top Model”, “American Pickers” , “Pawn Stars”, and “Tabitha’s Salon Takeover” not only achieved ratings, but also generated numerous related shows in their occupations.
The success of these shows is in how the profiled workers perform their jobs: the care for detail, going beyond the cash nexus, finding pleasure in the work itself . Jobs termed “throwaway” jobs by policy commentators a few years earlier, are shown as sources of dignity and satisfaction to these workers.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s,policy analysis and journalism often portrayed jobs in the practical economy as jobs to be avoided at all costs. No matter that these practical economy jobs usually provided a service that people desired (car repair, hair care, nursing home care) or produced a real product (baked goods, pawn shop items). Still, they were often characterized as throwaway jobs, distinguished by lack of challenge, tedium, low status, and low wages.
The most influential account in shaping this throwaway jobs view was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, published in 2001. Ehrenreich takes a series of low wage service jobs over a year’s period—as a waitress in Florida , a housecleaner and nursing home aide in Maine, and a Wal-Mart employee in Minnesota. She takes these jobs without indicating her education or background on her job applications. She lives only on the wages she earns, which means she stays in cheap motels and apartments.
Ehrenreich is a talented observer and writer, and her book set the meme on practical economy jobs. These jobs are distinguished by their low wages, well below what is needed to support a family. These jobs have no mobility opportunities. Further, they are characterized by difficult physical labor (waitressing, cleaning hotel rooms, nursing home care), unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and/or constant petty humiliations ( psychological tests and drug tests).
Also in 2001, novelist/writer Ben Cheever published Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy, with critique of the non-knowledge job world. Like Ehrenreich, Cheever is a college graduate, though unlike Ehrenreich he does not hide his background. He takes service sector jobs outside the knowledge economy. Over a period of five years he works as a Burns security guard, a telemarketer, a salesman at CompUSA, a salesman at Nobody Beats the Wiz, a sandwich maker at Cosi Sandwich Bar and a car salesman at Wegman Auto.
Cheever introduces the reader to several former while collar workers he meets in these jobs who have been fired or downsized from higher-status and higher paid jobs. Downsizing is a main theme of the book: a former IBM manager who is working at the car lot on commission, a certified public accountant who is working at the computer store, a Burns security guard who tells Cheever he’d been a phone company executive. Other themes are the tedium, repetition and difficulty of surviving on the low wages of sandwich making, or security guard, or commission salesperson.
Even at the time of these books and other critiques of the service sectors, a number of writers dissented from the conventional wisdom. They showed the practical economy jobs in some positive light, including the craft possible in the jobs. A few followed the approach of Ehrenreich and Cheever and took practical economy jobs. Charles Platt, a senior editor at Wired Magazine, took a job at Wal-Mart, and though he highlighted the low pay, he also highlighted the craft possible in a retail clerk position. Adam Shepard, a recent college graduate, set out with $25 in his pocket in Charleston, South Carolina, living in a homeless shelter. He moved through a series of practical economy positions to show the income and mobility possible even in low wage jobs.
The re-emergence of craft in the practical economy, though, found its fullest expression in the first decade of the 2000s with the rise of the work reality shows. These shows focused not on the knowledge economy jobs of analysts, lawyers, accountants, software engineers, web designers. Instead, they show craft and meaning in the jobs of bakers, car repairpersons, waiters, ice road truckers, pawn store owners, and antique restorers. Four of the highest rated of these shows were “The Cake Boss”, “America’s Next Top Model”, “American Pickers”, and “Pawn Stars”. They are worth briefly describing, for their celebration of the diverse forums for craft.
“The Cake Boss” premiered on April 19, 2009, on the TLC network. The main character is Buddy Valastro, who runs a bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey. The bakery, Carlo’s Bake Shop, has a baking and sales crew of nearly 30, including Buddy’s mother, four sisters and three brothers-in-law.
On the surface, the “Cake Boss” episodes are standard sitcom fare. On Christmas Eve, the crew must pull together to meet a rush of customers, which allows Buddy to reflect on the importance of family. A drag queen, Miss Richfield 1981, orders a “happy holidays” pop-up cake, which the crew must deliver to her New York City show. The shop’s two delivery guys, Anthony and Stretch, dress up as elves to deliver a cake to a women’s fashion business.
What is original, compelling and important about the show is the job values it demonstrates. Buddy and his crew do not approach baking as low skilled, production work. Instead, they are craftsmen; operating with creativity, care for detail, and willingness to put in time to get the product just right. Buddy and crew approach the pop-up cake and the women’s fashion cake as works of art, just as they approach the other theme cakes they create (robot cake, roller stake cake, billiards table cake and life-size race car cake). “I’ll redo a cake 10 times if I have to,” Buddy says of his drive. “I’ll work, you know, four days straight. I will do what I have to do to get the job done.” Even with the non-theme items, the regular cupcakes, cookies and pies, Buddy and crew continually are looking for ways to innovate, improve, be creative.
Though Buddy calculates how to make money, he also approaches the bakery as a calling. Through the bakery, he is serving others. He is providing his customers, mainly Hoboken residents, with quality cakes and cookies that they value and derive pleasure from. Further, through his response to customer demand, he creates a job not only for himself but also employment for others.
“Cake Boss” has led to other shows featuring the craft of bakery workers, “Ace of Cakes: and “Amazing Wedding Cakes”, as well as the craft of cupcake specialists, “Cupcake Wars”, “Cupcakes Girls” and “DC Cupcakes”.
“America’s Next Top Model” (ANTM) premiered in May 2003, on the UPN network, and quickly became one of the highest rated shows on the network, continuing for over twenty seasons (2 seasons per year). Despite on-going changes in the judging panel, the format remained similar: each season started with 10-14 contestants and each episode one contestant was eliminated, based on modeling ability.
ANTM was criticized as over-emphasizing female physical appearance. Yet, the main message of ANTM was exactly the opposite. Listen each week to host Tyra Banks and technical advisors Jay Manuel and J. Alexander: Modeling is far more than looking good, modeling is a craft. A model cannot simply show up. She must study the rules and norms of modeling, must understand photo-shoot directions, must master the runway walk. J. Alexander, the runway adviser, speaks about balance and posture and meeting the client’s goals, rarely about looks.
“American Pickers” premiered on the History Channel in January 2010, and has continued to the present. It focuses on Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, whose business is “picking”, traveling throughout the country to purchase antiques and collectibles, from ordinary people. Usually, the goods are in run-down condition and are in need of repair or restoration. The pickers try to identify the gems among the bars and antics of junk.
For Mike and Frank, their business is craft and calling. They are looking to make a profit in their antique restorations—each week, the Pickers announce, “We’ll buy anything we can make money on”, and “Where other people see junk, we see dollar signs”. In practice, though, they purchase antiques that will not be profitable, but are objects of beauty or importance that should not be lost. Mike purchases a rusting guitar which he’ll probably lose money on because he believes it should be rescued; so too with Mike’s collection of Indian motorcycles and vintage bicycle that are more labors of love than money makers.
Pawn Stars is another work reality show on the History channel, premiering in July 2009, and continuing to the present. It focuses on the workers at the World Famous Gold & Silve Pawn Shop, a family-owned pawn shop in Las Vegas, Nevada. The main character is Rick Harrison, and he works with his father Richard “Old Man” Harrison, son Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison, and Corey’s friend Austin “Chumlee” Russell.
These pawn shop workers daily meet with customers who bring in a wide range of items, from old cars to silver goods and furniture, to sell or pawn. The workers provide history lessons on the items, as well as discussion of their cost estimates. The pawn shop becomes not a cheap and empty means of commerce. Rather, it is an on-going history lesson, by workers whose mission is to identify and rescue artifact.
Beyond these four shows are more than twenty work-reality spin-offs, variations and competitors in the same industries and others: “Pimp My Ride” on workers in an auto custom repair shop, “Tabitha’s Salon Takeover” and “Shear Genius” on hair stylists, “Ice Road Truckers” on long-haul truck drivers in isolated areas of Canada.
II. Craft, Calling and the Autism Workforce
How refreshing are these work reality shows; and how much they canhelp all workers, those with autism and the neurotypicals, recapture jobs in the practical economy. How much the these shows can push back against the idea of “throwaway” jobs, and help all workers try to find craft. For it is in craft, our economy obtains quality services and products. It is also in craft that workers inject meaning in jobs.
This point about meaning is worth elaborating on. The same job that one baker, hair stylist or nursing home attendant might regard as without meaning, can be a source of pride for another worker. It all depends on perspective and craft.
Perhaps no book expresses the values of perspective and craft in the practical economy better than one of the early 1970s, Studs Terkel’s Working.  The book subtitled, “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”, is an oral history of workers primarily in practical economy jobs: waitress, bookbinder, cement mason, gravedigger and other non-knowledge occupations. The popularity of the book was due in good part to the craft described in these jobs, and how workers injected meaning in their work.
A waitress tells Terkel, “When I put the plate down, you don’t hear a sound. When I pick up a glass, I want it to be just right. When someone says, ‘How come you’re just a waitress’, I say, ‘Don’t you think you deserve being served by me.’”
A bookbinder takes pleasure in repairing old books because “a book is a life”. A gravedigger takes pride in the neat lines and square edges of his work.
In the years since Working was published, other books have addressed this relation of craft and work meaning in our post-industrial economy, notably Robert Schrank’s Ten Thousand Working Days and Don Snyder’s The Cliff Walk. In The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found, Don Snyder, a former college professor, details his loss of job in academia and re-emergence as a carpenter.  Snyder first describes how he loses his job as a college English professor, remains unemployed for a lengthy period of time, and is reduced to supporting his family through food stamps and handouts. He slowly gets his life back together, first by taking a job as a golf course maintenance main ($8 an hour), then as a carpenter ($15 an hour) and finally as a handyman ($18 an hour). As the book ends, he is getting back to a middle class lifestyle. Much of the book is about the satisfaction and craft Snyder finds as carpenter and handyman, in providing a service that his client homeowners need.
For adults with autism, craft will offer a source of meaning. It will also offer a competitive advantage in many cases. The founders of the autism-focused businesses and autism-focused hiring initiatives of the previous chapter see their experiences as bearing out a competitive advantage in craft. Other professionals in autism employment have come to this view.
In chapter 11 on technology employment, technology professionals spoke of the autism advantage in certain technology positions, such as software testing and quality control. These professionals identified abilities in concentration, comfort with repetition and memory for detail that were held by many adults with autism and central to job performance.
So too these abilities are main elements of performance and craft in the practical economy, and linked to adults with autism. For car wash owner John D’Eri, his workers with autism perform better than other car wash workers, in concentration, attention to detail and loyalty. Ms. Heather Davis, the parent of a son with autism and prime mover behind the TIAA-CREFF apple orchards business, claims that the ten apple harvesters with autism perform better through their concentration and routine than other harvesters. “Most people not on the autism spectrum get bored” Ms Davis told an interviewer, but for someone with autism “routine isn’t such a problem for them”.  The performance study of the workers with autism at the Walgreens Distribution Centers reported better performance outcomes by these workers and lower turnover.
Going forward, an autism advantage in the skills linked to craft needs to be further explored, documented, and hopefully built upon. Job coaches and counselors and others who work with adults with autism (including family members) need to be aware of the advantage, help cultivate these craft skills and sell these skills to employers.
By no means will all workers with autism possess these craft skills, but experiences so far should give us hope that many will do so. Approaching employers under the banner of craft will be the better strategy for expanding autism’s domain in the practical economy.
 Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2001.
 Ben Cheever, Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy; A Personal Odyssey, Bloomsbury, New York, 2001.
 Charles Platt, “Life at Wal-Mart”, Boing Boing, February 1, 2009.
 Adam Shepard, Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, Harper Collins, New York, 2008.
 Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How they Feel About What They Do, Pantheon, New York, 1972.
 Robert Schrank, Ten Thousand Working Days (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1978.). Schrank, a former Ford Foundation official, details the many jobs he has held over the fifty years of his work life. He starts in the 1920s in a furniture factory and over the next years works with his hands as a plumber, coal miner, and machinist. He then turns to a career as a union official, city commissioner, and foundation official. In these latter jobs, he continues to be plagued by the thought that he is not “productive”. He adds, “I must confess that since I left the shop floor I have never been able to answer that question satisfactorily for myself or my fellow union officials, or for professionals, academics, or consultants.”
 Dan Snyder, The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1997.
 Susan Ladika, “Companies Find Fruitful Results When Hiring Autistic Workers”, www.workforce.com, July 16, 2012. Ms. Ami Klin of the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University tells the writer,Ms. Ladika, that her research shows adults with autism pay close attention to detail and following rules, to a greater extent than other workers, and are more reliable than other workers.