Autism at Work initiative brings talents to Wright-Patt workforce

Sam Willoughby (right), a computer assistant intern with the Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, talks about changes to a database user guide with supervisor Bob Weber, Sept. 27. Willoughby is on the autism spectrum and was hired through a special initiative via Air Force Materiel Command’s Workforce Recruitment Program, which offers opportunities for college students who have disabilities. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)

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Sam Willoughby (right), a computer assistant intern with the Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, talks about changes to a database user guide with supervisor Bob Weber, Sept. 27. Willoughby is on the autism spectrum and was hired through a special initiative via Air Force Materiel Command’s Workforce Recruitment Program, which offers opportunities for college students who have disabilities. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegyi)

What began as simply watching a story on television led to an initiative, unique in the Air Force, that’s been bringing a host of benefits to work centers across Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

After watching an Autism at Work story that highlighted technology companies touting the benefits derived by diversifying their workforces with employees on the autism spectrum, John Snodgrass, Air Force Materiel Command’s Manpower, Personnel and Services director, asked Molly Fore, a human resources specialist with AFMC’s Personnel Program Branch, and her team to see if there was a way to start an Autism at Work initiative as part of the Workforce Recruitment Program here.

The WRP for College Students with Disabilities was established in 1995 as a partnership between the U.S. Departments of Labor and Defense. It connects public and private-sector employers with postsecondary students and recent graduates who are eager to prove their talents and skills in the workplace through summer internships, which could potentially lead to permanent jobs.

“We approached Wright State (University) with the idea,” said Fore. “They are one of the largest universities in the country to host students with disabilities.”

Wright State agreed to be a partner and in April 2018 the co-partners launched a year-long pilot program with the aim of finding job opportunities in areas requiring the particular skills members on the autism spectrum bring to the table.

Research has shown that these candidates bring a multitude of benefits to the workplace, including unique perspectives, focus, attention to detail, as well as many others, said Fore.

According to Air Force senior leadership, building a diverse work force is an essential element of airpower.

“Recruiting and retaining diverse Airmen cultivates innovation. Like different aircraft and missions make up one air tasking order, different people make the best teams when integrated purposefully together,” said Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein.

A statement on the Air Force Diversity and Inclusion website explains: “The challenges faced today are far too serious, and the implications of failure far too great, for our Air Force to do less than fully and inclusively leverage the nation’s greatest strength – our remarkably diverse people.”

“Here at Wright-Patt, we have the leading Air Force research facility, oversee billions of dollars in acquisition programs and host one of the largest intelligence centers, which can all benefit from this talented pool of candidates,” said Fore.

According to Fore, a challenging aspect of a job search for candidates with autism often includes difficulty navigating social situations, such as the interview process, which could hinder a candidate’s ability to land a job within their field of study.

To overcome this obstacle a specialized interview method was developed, Fore said. Wright State’s Office of Disability Services agreed to host the interview location allowing job seekers a familiar setting, giving them a greater level of comfort level and a greater opportunity for a successful job search.

So far the initiative is proving successful, said Fore. Out of 20 initial candidates, 14 have been hired across the installation. AFMC hopes to expand the program to include other universities and AFMC installations in the future.

Jonah Leary

Leary is a mechanical engineering intern working with the 88th Air Base Wing’s Civil Engineering Group.

“I’ve always been interested in how things work,” said Leary. “According to my mom, when I was little I was obsessed with the vacuum cleaner and toys that had wheels and other stuff like that.”

Laurel Papadopoulos, 88 CEG, interviewed Leary through the WRP program and now serves as his supervisor.

“I was impressed with him from the beginning,” said Papadopoulos. “He really shines as an engineering intern. He’s very detail oriented and he looks at a problem from every angle, which is very necessary for an engineer.”

Leary was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified at age 2. He had stopped speaking and was having difficulty paying attention.

In the fourth grade, Leary was also diagnosed with depression and anxiety and had to deal with a lot of bullying. He found some respite in writing fan fiction, which was something he says he enjoys. He likes writing so much that he recently authored a 20-page paper on the use of mobile denial barriers on the installation.

“I wasn’t planning for it to be that long,” said Leary. “I really got into it because I love writing so much.”

“I’m really happy here. The people are friendly and I enjoy the work environment,” said Leary.

Sam Willoughby

As a computer assistant intern at the Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies, Willoughby does database maintenance work ensuring that the DISCS database stays aligned with a very fluid and evolving schedule.

He became interested in computers at an early age and began building his own gaming computers. This led to an interest in programming and hardware, which then led him into the Computer Science program at Wright State where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Computer Science. He reasoned that it would offer him a more diverse experience and give him some skills and knowledge suitable for other fields of interest.

“I actually really like it here. Our building specialty is education, this is partly a schoolhouse, and we have groups of students in here all of the time. Some of them are international students,” said Willoughby. “The highlight of my experience here so far is getting to talk to people from other countries and other walks of life.”

Willoughby was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in second grade, but he considers himself just a normally functioning member of society.

“I don’t like wearing my diagnosis on my sleeve,” said Willoughby.

But, he does acknowledge early struggles in public school saying he couldn’t keep up with the work and got picked on a lot because he didn’t know how to fit in with the other kids.

He began homeschooling in the fourth grade and then went into an online public school program until he graduated from high school.

“I got into the Autism at Work initiative through Wright State’s Office of Disability Services,” said Willoughby. “I have a mentor here named Sharon who lets me know about other opportunities around base. She’s been very helpful and it’s nice to know there’s someone looking out for me. People around here are respectful of my anxiety.”

“Working with Sam has opened me up to someone with a disability I knew nothing about,” said Sharon Stauffer, a management analyst for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s engineering functional. “I thought he would be more withdrawn and more into himself, but instead he’s very outgoing and very outspoken. He’s actually friendlier and more outspoken than I am. He’s a very pleasant young man and I enjoy talking with him. He’s brought me out of my shell.

“I would like to see this program grow and become permanent here on the base,” said Stauffer. “Keep the mentorship going with them, so they will continue to grow and even become mentors themselves, helping new students adjust.”

And to those future candidates, Willoughby offered some advice.

“You have nothing to lose by getting involved in the application process. I’ve been there and know how you feel,” said Willoughby.

“Sam was eager to start right from the get go,” said Bob Weber, deputy director for academic technology at DISCS and Willoughby’s supervisor. “He was very curious and wanted to know a little bit about everything.”

Along with his responsibility of inputting the class schedules into the database, Weber said that Willoughby has been writing user guides for the system.

“I can assign him virtually anything we do here on our team and he would succeed at it,” said Weber. “This is actually a pretty good place for Sam to fit in and some of the folks here didn’t even realize he has a disability. Sam has an incredible attention to detail and he’s fast. He doesn’t get distracted easily. One of the hardest things for me is in keeping him employed and occupied because he finishes assigned tasks so quickly. He’s also not shy about asking for help or clarification so what he produces is precise with great attention to detail.”

When asked about his thoughts on the Autism at Work initiative, Weber didn’t hesitate to give it a glowing recommendation.

“Give the Autism at Work program a chance,” said Weber. “The gifts that these people bring to the workforce is the money maker: their attention to detail, their focus and their desire to do a good job. I think those are the keys to the whole program. The folks will surprise you. If they’re anything like Sam, you will not be disappointed, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what they’re able to do.”

Michael Collier

Michael Collier’s passion to help people led him to an internship opportunity, again through Wright State’s office of disability services, at the 711th Human Performance Wing. His degree in biomedical engineering gave him the skills needed to test lifesaving equipment used by Airmen in the course of their operational duties

Diagnosed on the autism spectrum at an early age, Collier had to work hard to get to where he is today.

“Late-elementary to early-middle school, let’s say my social skills were really … bad,” said Collier. “For several years we would go to speech therapists, social therapists and learn the skills that I needed for life.”

Collier uses his unique gifts in his work at the 711th.

“I do bring a different perspective just because my mind does work a little bit differently,” said Collier. “Sometimes potential weaknesses are also potential strengths.”

Ben Steinhauer, Collier’s’ supervisor, couldn’t agree more.

“What Michael sees as a weakness, I see as a strength,’ said Steinhauer. “As far as expectations for somebody who has autism, I don’t hold him to anything less. [The Autism at Work Initiative] allows the government to hire in, what I would call, a new perspective. Michael always spins everything in a positive light and is always wanting to know more. He’s always wanting to do better. He’s always actively learning.”

When asked about his thoughts on the Autism at Work initiative, Collier encouraged others to give it a try.

“I’m extremely grateful just to be here,” said Collier. “Sometimes I do kind of feel that I don’t know enough yet to be of great use, but first I have to learn, and then I am useful for these things. That improves me and it helps the group. Everyone wins!”

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