How neurodiverse employees are changing the workforce

SHOP TALK: Hayley Michaels, left, Ashley Deck, center, and Claire Scanga of Madam Clutterbucket's Neurodiverse Universe hope to set an example for other businesses. Photo by Linda Ray

Though often-overlooked, neurodiverse employees with a wide variety of skills, talents and supportive networks are ready to work, says Ashley Deck, owner of Madam Clutterbucket’s Neurodiverse Universe.

Deck, who launched the gift shop in downtown Asheville in October, currently employs nine neurodiverse employees. Along with vintage gifts and antiques, the shop also sells sensory integration products and occupational therapy tools like weighted blankets, widgets and tactile items that help people process and organize sensory information.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, neurodiversity describes the many ways individuals experience and interact with the world. Furthermore, the concept emphasizes the notion that there is no one way of thinking, learning and behaving. Though the concept refers to all people, it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder, as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I was adamant we employ people with neurodivergent abilities,” says Deck, a former special education teacher from Atlanta, who saw positive changes in her autistic son when he got a job with a family-owned business in Georgia. “We want to be an example for other businesses.”

Staff member Hayley Michaels, who has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair, says she loves her job working the register at Madam Clutterbucket’s. Despite a bachelor’s degree in political science and women’s studies, Michaels says she had a tough time finding work after graduation.

“Here, they don’t see me as a liability,” she says. “And I’m being my best self.”

Previously ignored

Madam Clutterbucket’s is not alone in its mission. According to Michael LePage, regional service director for the Autism Society of North Carolina, employers’ embrace of neurodivergent workers has improved in recent decades. As one example, he points to the 15-year working relationship between the Autism Society and the Candler-based Oowee Products. The company, which makes handcrafted goods, employs people on the autism spectrum to sew.

LePage notes that other companies in Western North Carolina successfully employing neurodiverse staff include Renaissance Asheville Downtown Hotel, Pack’s Tavern, Centering on Children, Earth Fare, Cherry Tree Beads, Canteen and Industry Nine.

Meanwhile, current staffing shortages, continues LePage, have led to even more companies reaching out to him for references. “We’ve had multiple employers call us recently,” he says. “The big staffing shortages are requiring employers to get creative and be more willing to make accommodations.”

Because of the wide range of differences among the neurodiverse, LePage urges employers to “give people a chance to play on the field and prove themselves.”

According to LePage, some accommodations companies offer neurodivergent employees include quieter working environments and reduced lighting. “Additionally, they provide flexible working schedules to accommodate needs,” he says.

Through a push for self-advocacy, parents of autistic people willing to start neurodiverse-friendly businesses and a dire need for dependable staff, employers are seeing that hiring previously ignored populations is good for business, LePage adds.

Nothing about us without us

Self-advocacy is important for those facing discrimination in the workplace, echoes Danny Landry, founder of Autistics-United. But so too is establishing a community.

When Landry moved to Asheville in 2010, he says it was difficult to connect with other autistic residents. “I wanted to meet people who I could relate to on the spectrum,” he says. “I wanted a group that was all autistic-run. I wanted to create a supportive community.”

In March 2012, he launched AU, which aims to create an atmosphere of mentorship and peer support, as well as foster leadership abilities to all members, no matter where they are on the spectrum.

“At AU, we welcome people both formally diagnosed as autistic or who self-identify as autistic,” Landry says.

Eva Reynolds, associate director and employment coordinator for Disability Partners in Asheville, says that she’s seeing individuals such as Landry driving the disability pride movement by “owning their stuff.”

“For each person, it’s different,” she says. “But that kind of empowerment is what will help employers be more open-minded and accommodating when people ask for what they need.” And Reynolds says the disability self-advocacy movement will have a greater impact on business and political policymakers when they hear the motto: “Nothing about us without us.”

Path toward independence

Parents of autistic children are also at the forefront of employing neurodivergent workers. Betsy Brewer, with her husband, Pete, are opening a Howdy Homemade Ice Cream franchise in Arden in May. The business will provide their daughter Annie Brewer with an opportunity to have meaningful work and potential independence.

The Texas-based company was started by a father with an autistic child and allows franchisees to run their stores as they see fit. Betsy Brewer says they’ve already hired 10 employees on the autism spectrum; some are closer to neurotypical, and others have more extensive needs.

The store will be accessible to accommodate all staff and clientele. “We also hired a teacher to manage the store and be our employment accessibility specialist,” Betsy says.

Like Deck at Madam Clutterbucket’s, Betsy hopes to be an example to other business owners to be more accepting of people with different ways of interacting.

Another path toward independence is self-employment, though it can come with difficulties for neurodivergent people. Some banks are reluctant about lending to people without a credit track record and who may  have legal caregivers handle their finances, says Ian Rudick, who launched Supporting Enterprise Resources for Varied Entrepreneurs in 2021.

His organization, in collaboration with Come From the Heart, Eagle Market Streets Development Corp. and the Self-Help Credit Union, provides microloans to neurodiverse entrepreneurs. Loans have yet to be made, but SERVE is actively seeking applicants.

SERVE board member Sybriea Lundy has a 4-year-old daughter with Down syndrome and she wants to be a part of changing how employers and society in general view the neurodiverse.

“Lilly is social and capable and ferociously independent at 4,” Lundy says. “I can imagine what she’s going to be like as she grows up. And, sure, she’s going to have to deal with discrimination, but she shouldn’t be the one who has to change; it’s up to us to change.”

At Madam Clutterbucket’s, Deck doesn’t believe it takes all that much to make accommodations practical for her staff. She’s currently working on creating a break room that’s sensory sensitive for them that anyone might find soothing. “We’re a business that wants to be a platform to show the whole community what real diversity looks like.”


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