The unique skills people with autism have can contribute to business success and create a more inclusive work environment, says Mona Shah
Harry Specters is a chocolatiers and social enterprise located in Ely, Cambridgeshire. It was founded in 2011 when I realised I could combine my love for chocolate with my desire to help young people with autism. In partnership with my husband and business partner, Shaz, we provide both amazing chocolates and incredible opportunities for young people on the autism spectrum.
Harry Specters is built on the belief that businesses and organisations need to untap, utilise and nurture skills that people with autism have. We are very proud of the fact that during the past two years, one of our biggest successes has been to be able to create a supportive environment for young people with autism, and as a result we have a good idea of what skills they possess.
What are the top three skills and characteristics that makes them amazing workers?
Loyal employees. Employee loyalty, which is a major concern for employers, has three dimensions: turnover, attendance and organisational citizenship (individual behaviour and support that contribute to the organisational success). The value of loyal workers has increased because of a) competition for talent and b) a bigger focus on employee empowerment and wellbeing.
We feel very lucky sharing that on all three dimensions we score highly. During busy times, our staff are happy to come on weekends and work for longer hours, not only because of the monetary benefit, but because we provide them with the sense of achievement and fulfilment which they crave. They understand the fact that our business would not be able to function without them, and it is their sense of responsibility that makes them such loyal workers. They don’t take days off unless they have a genuine reason, they are punctual, and conscientious in their work. If they do not want to put in long hours, they will say so in advance, so you don’t have last minute absences to deal with – as is the case when dealing with mainstream employees. We have had five young people with autism working for us on and off, and all of them want to be with us forever!
Different perspective. Our Rose & Cardamom chocolate won a three star Great Taste Award. Many people have given us their feedback, commenting on the balance and unique flavour combination. Among all the comments we have received, one from a 17-year old who was at Harry Specters for his work experience really stood out. He said “It tastes romantic!”. The chocolate is exactly that. No one else had thought of it that way, focusing instead on dissecting the flavours and judging the balance of ingredients. This different perspective also extends to the way they work. While assembling flat-packed boxes, some of our staff will come up with a totally different way of folding the box that eliminates a few steps in the process, making it quicker and more efficient. They question how we do things at times, suggesting a different and, quite often, better way.
Creativity. People with autism can be very creative. For example, Tim Sharp is a world-renowned autistic artist whose work is exhibited in galleries worldwide. We have also found our autistic team members to be problem solvers and creative. One of our employees is keen to share ideas for new flavours for our chocolates, while another young girl has a creative unique way of packaging chocolates. This creativity is also seen when they decorate moulds for slabs and Easter eggs.
For these skills to surface and for people with autism to reach their potential, the work environment has to be supportive. Autistic employees should feel that the workplace is theirs, a place where they can be themselves and where their contributions are valued. Organisations that can offer such an environment have the potential to reap rewards from the positive impact people with autism can make on their bottom line.
Mona Shah is founder, chocolatier and managing director of Harry Specters.