College graduates with a condition like autism or ADHD have often faced limited options when looking for work, but now there's a movement for businesses to recognize the benefits of neurodiversity and appreciate people who think differently.
Landmark College, in Putney, helps students with learning difficulties navigate college and life beyond. This semester is now over, and recent graduate Sam Koslowsky is moving out of his dorm.
Koslowsky said that he knew from an early age that he'd need extra help to make it through school.
“When I was in elementary school, I barely passed a cutting test — I think I actually failed it — which, you know, when they test your hand-eye coordination by giving you a pair of scissors and a bunch of shapes and paper and telling you to cut them?” Koslowsky said. “So early intervention is like the only reason I went from being a probably textbook basketcase to actually being a semi-functional human being.”
An early diagnosis of ADD/ADHD and a pervasive developmental disorder meant Koslowsky got the support to make it through high school. But, he said, for a very long time that learning disability label — or "LD" — was a reminder of all that he'd never be able to achieve out in the world.
“I absolutely did not want to be classified as an LD kid,” Koslowsky said. “I hated the, like, idea of having to be dependent on medication or dependent on this assistance at all. ... For a long time it really galled me as a person to have to deal with all that.”
Koslowsky ended up at Landmark College after attending a university in Massachusetts, where he had some health issues and missed a bunch of classes. He said having a learning disability made it hard to catch up on his studies.
Over the past year Koslowky took part in the Landmark internship program, working for the nearby Putney Conservation Commission. The work was meaningful, he said, and he'll be working this summer on a lake making sure boaters are not transferring invasive species into the water.
As he packs up his dorm room and gets ready to leave Landmark, Koslowky said he’s spending more time these days considering his options, instead of lamenting opportunities that might be closed to him.
“You shouldn’t have to work at a soulless job, at like a McDonald's or something, because you have an LD. ... You can for the summer, but you should never make it your be-all end-all," Koslowsky said. "There’s always something that you can do somewhere. You just have to push hard enough for it, long enough."
Jan Coplan, the career connections director at Landmark College, said the options for students like Koslowsky are increasing as businesses become more comfortable with hiring people with learning differences.
"Neurodiversity is a social movement right now," Coplan said. "It's a social justice movement."
About 15 years ago, elementary school teachers around the country starting seeing an increase in the number of kids with autism and ADHD. Coplan said as that generation now gets through college and looks for jobs, they’re focusing on what they can bring to the workforce.
“Individuals are learning more about their learning differences and the strengths that those bring,” Coplan said. “Their mindset is changing from ‘I have this deficit that needs to be accommodated' to 'I have this strength that I can bring.' So they’re becoming more knowledgeable about how they learn and what they can do in the workforce.”
Landmark College recently signed an agreement with DXC Technology, an international IT company that's been recruiting more people with learning difficulties into the high tech industry. Landmark is the first school in the United States to establish itself as a neurodiversity hub for moving its students into the informational technology field.
“Manager training and co-worker training is critical,” said Michael Fieldhouse, with DXC Technology.
Fieldhouse met with Landmark students and staff this month to talk about how businesses can make it easier for employees with learning differences to succeed.
"Do people understand what they can get from the employee assistance program? Do the managers have mental health training?" Fieldhouse said, for example. "You know, do people understand the difference between anxiety and autism? Just basic kind of stuff that, you know, do you have those in place?”
Fieldhouse said the emerging focus on building a neurodiverse workforce comes at a time when many companies are having trouble filling positions in IT. The agreement with Landmark means graduates from the Windham County college could have access to companies such as Microsoft, SAP and Ford.
Koslowsky will be attending UVM in the fall where he'll focus on environmental science. He said whatever job he ends up doing will hopefully take him outside and be working with people.
Landmark College is a VPR underwriter.