Editor's note: This story has been updated to give the correct name for the Chattanooga Autism Center.
Jonathan Sharp has earned associate degrees with honors in both accounting and hotel management, but the 43-year-old bookkeeper said his autism has often created a challenge in getting through traditional job interviews or sales networking.
So Tuesday, Sharp drove more than 200 miles from his home in Johnson City, Tennessee, to participate in a networking and neurodiversity event in Chattanooga that organizers designed to help individuals like Sharp connect with employers and businesses in an easier manner.
While some participants shared time playing games and eating snacks, employers were able to talk with potential employees in a setting more comfortable for most of the dozens of autistic and other neurodivergent individuals who gathered Tuesday on the fifth floor of the Edney building. At a similar event organized by the Enterprise Center earlier this year, Sharp picked up a business client for his bookkeeping business, and he was eager Tuesday night to add to his portfolio.
It's difficult for people with autism "to get employed even if they have great credentials because most employers don't seem to want to take a chance on someone or something they don't understand or is out of the ordinary," said Sharp, who has served on the board of the social and support program offered through the Chattanooga Autism Center. "Oftentimes, the best employer for people with disabilities is themselves."
Unum, Steam Logistics, Chattanooga State and other local employers have been coming to the quarterly networking events to help find ways of breaking through traditional barriers for autistic workers. With more than three job openings for every unemployed person in Chattanooga in today's tight labor market, employers are looking for ways to broaden the pool of job applicants and find ways to keep more workers they have on the job.
The Enterprise Center helped launch the quarterly networking and job fair for neurodivergent people in 2022 after one of their data analysts, Zac Becker, suggested the idea.
Created as an alternative to traditional happy hour networking events, Becker said the networking and neurodiversity events offer distinct spaces for conversation, connection and even a quiet area to provide an opportunity for attendees to engage in ways they are most comfortable.
"I think an event like this helps because even though it is open to anyone, the idea and the structure is to help neurodiverse individuals, so if they are looking for employment, they can find out more about what jobs and opportunities are out there," Becker, who has autism, said in an interview Tuesday.
Tuesday's event included spaces for small conversations in breakaway rooms and dedicated multiplayer game stations organized by Game On Chatt — all designed to provide encouraging interaction among participants and to give a chance for employers to get to know qualified potential applicants they may not meet otherwise.
The job interview remains a major barrier for many autistic and neurodivergent workers seeking a job, experts say.
"If you are doing standard, old-school interviewing and someone is different than you, you tend to discriminate and you are less likely to hire that person, even if such a person has the skills needed to do the job," Dave Buck, executive director of the Chattanooga Autism Center, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
According to the Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation, unemployment for neurodivergent adults runs as high as 40%, which is three times the rate for people with disability and eight times the rate for people without disability.
"There are multiple research studies over the past decade that report approximately 80% unemployment or underemployment in the autism community," Buck said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Some employers also are unwilling to make accommodations in the workplace or in work rules to accommodate the needs of each individual.
"We need a more holistic view about what is needed in the workplace and how we can best accomplish that to help ensure more autistic and other neurodivergent individuals stay on their job," Buck said. "This is an untapped labor force."
According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 36 people are autistic, or more than 15,000 people in metropolitan Chattanooga. Adding in those with attention deficit disorder, Tourette's syndrome and learning disabilities like dyslexia, as many as 20,000 or more Chattanoogans may have some type of neurodivergence with thought patterns, behaviors or learning styles that fall outside of what is considered "normal," or neurotypical condition.
Tuesday's event at the Enterprise Center and ongoing efforts by the city, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and major employers should help begin overcoming some of the traditional barriers to employment by neurodivergent workers, Buck said.
"Finding a job is often about networking with people and, hopefully, an event like this makes this more possible," he said.
Quentin Lawrence, director of workforce strategy for the city of Chattanooga, said the quarterly networking events are "an opportunity not just for individuals looking for work, but for area employers to engage with a wide array of talented individuals and to understand how together we can create a stronger workforce that's more representative of our diverse and dynamic community."