Introducing a Spectrum of Heroes

Mind Shift has promoted hiring people with autism because of the advantage they bring to the workplace.  We are quick to mention that our Specialists have greater focus and accuracy, lower turnover rates, greater attention to detail and deviation, a high work ethic and sense of integrity.  But if this is so, why do we not see greater employment opportunities for those with autism?

If this question was asked in our offices, you might hear that common misconceptions surrounding autism prevent employers from seeing the value of the individuals. 

This misunderstanding is disappointing at best, and damaging and debilitating at worst.  But there is hope.  It is becoming common knowledge that with autism come advantages that can benefit an organization.  And recently we have begun to see more and more heroes with autism in popular culture.  It’s about time.

Here are just a few examples of heroes who save the day while also living with the challenges that come with autism:

1.      Billy, the blue Power Ranger is on the autism spectrum.

2.     Symmetra, a popular playable character in the video game Overwatch, is on the autism spectrum.

3.     “The Good Doctor” is an ABC series that tells the story of surgeon with ASD.

4.     While not specifically diagnosed, Drax the Destroyer from “Guardians of the Galaxy” has become a favorite character in the autism community.

5.     Ben Affleck, in the “R” rated movie “The Accountant”, portrays an antihero with autism (this one isn’t for the kids).

And while we have fun exploring heroics in popular culture, we need to remember the real-life heroes with autism.  Those individuals who put themselves in harm’s way to assist others, those people who act with integrity, virtue, and bravery.

Heroes such as Micah David-Cole Fletcher, who was one of three individuals who stepped in to stop a white supremacist from harassing two girls on a Portland, Oregon train.  Two of those individuals died from injuries when the harasser attacked them for stepping in.  Micah was stabbed in the neck, but survived his injuries after a two-hour surgery.  Micah acted bravely and selflessly to help two people he didn’t know.  Micah is a real-life hero. 

While it is great to see heroes with autism becoming more common in our society, we should remember that greatness does not only appear in comic books, video games and movies.  There are real life heroes on the spectrum amongst us.

Raise Your Mug: Advancing Careers with Anthem

Joy Kieffer, Employment Services Manager, and Sam Packwood, Specialist

Sam Packwood is a superstar for Mind Shift!

Joy Kieffer, Employment Services Manager and Sam's supervisor, says,"Sam is extremely focused and motivated. His attention to detail has allowed him to create incredibly complex spreadsheets that are being modeled throughout the company."

Joy also shared this quote she received about his work, "I wanted to let you know how great I think Sam is!!  He is an extremely smart person and is doing an excellent job on the project.  He is a quick learner and is able to accomplish a lot of work in a short period of time.  In fact, our contact from the Information Technology department, who is training us how to build scorecards, said he hasn’t seen anyone catch on so quickly to this work and he has been working with this for over 6 months!"

We're so glad to have Sam help us "raise a mug" to Anthem for giving Mind Shift Specialists an opportunity to excel!


Forrest, Eide Bailly

Forrest, Eide Bailly

Last month, Prakash Mathew invited me to share Mind Shift's vision with his fellow members of the Thrivent Financial Northland Region Board of Directors. In addition to their generous financial support, they gave me the opportunity to meet Marci Narum. 

Marci approached me after the meeting and asked me more about both Mind Shift and my personal journey as the of mother of a child on the autism spectrum. She wanted to share our stories in Inspired Woman Magazine. Marci beautifully weaves together all of our experiences and encapsulates the struggles, hopes and triumphs of these beautiful minds!


Thank you to Marci, Jacy (our photographer) and magazine co-owner, Jody! ~Cortnee and the entire Mind Shift Team

Heather, Bell Bank

Heather, Bell Bank

Alex, Appareo Systems

Alex, Appareo Systems

Neurodiversity Leads to Innovation and Solutions

Ernst & Young's neurodiversity pilot program results in innovation and exceeded expectations! Opportunity lies with those who think differently. Thank you to our supporter, Randy, for sharing this article with Mind Shift friends and family.  Your support and good will is integral to our success.


The Importance of Neuro-diversity

A book by Veronica Roth

A book by Veronica Roth

Neuro-diversity- Wikipedia defines neuro-diversity as:  “…an idea which asserts that atypical (neuro-divergent) neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation.”   

A few years ago, the Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth burst onto the literary scene in both a series of books and as a series of movies. Set in the future, the story tells of a culture where young teens are tested and assigned their career path in life. The main character is “divergent”- and this multifaceted profile is despised by the culture. She hides her differences as long as she can. While the series goes to an extreme to make a point, the theme is that neurodiversity is good for a society. Our teams and communities function better, and life experience is richer, when we don’t all think and respond in the same way.

As the Mind Shift Employment Services Manager for the Twin Cities office, I have the pleasure of working with individuals who share their neuro-diversity with me and the businesses with whom they work. They sees things and experience life differently. That is the key. Specialists’ brains do work differently, and this is a strength in the world of work. This neuro-diversity manifests itself in many ways, and provides a richness within a team that doesn’t exist when everyone is thinking in exactly the same ways. Businesses stop living with problems, and new, innovative solutions are created. The creative synergy is electrifying.

As MInd Shift in the Twin Cities starts its second year of operation, Specialists who are working in various companies have proven over and over again that we when we embrace the neuro-diversity that they bring, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

Autism and the Job Interview


It is a well-documented fact that the autistic population is largely unemployed or underemployed, even those with exceptional talent and intelligence. One of the reasons these individuals are more likely to be unemployed is because of particular challenges presented by the traditional interviewing process. 

Here is why you may not get an accurate view of the skills of someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and could miss out on game-changing talent:

1.     Although individuals with ASD may translate computer code like their native language, they might have trouble interpreting facial cues and body language.  This makes it difficult for them to react to these social ques.

2.     Autism often makes people focused employees, but it can also come with social anxiety, shyness, and “quirky” behavior.  The stress that comes with the interview process can exacerbate this, and then be misread by the interviewer.

3.     Because of the black and white thinking found in autistic individuals, they tend to be refreshingly honest, but they can find it challenging to elaborate on particularly open-ended or abstract questions.

4.     Cultural biases, such as a firm handshake and appropriate eye contact are often expected from a job candidate, but physical contact and direct eye contact can be uncomfortable for some people with ASD.

5.     And on occasion, because you can’t possibly know everything about every disability, employers may misunderstand and inadvertently discriminate against those with autism.

So, how can employers change their interviewing method to move past these limitations?  Here are a few ways:

1.     Allow the applicant extra time to answer questions, and don’t assume using the extra time reflects an intellectual disadvantage.

2.     Focus on the skills and traits that are required to do the job well.

3.     Avoid jargon and hypothetical questions that might cause a black and white thinker to misunderstand a question, or answer a question too literally.

4.     Interview in a space with minimal distraction and environmental stimulus.

5.     Come to the interview with an open mind and allow your assumptions to be challenged.

There are a number of advantages to including people on the autism spectrum into a business or organization.  Considering the challenges the traditional interviewing process creates can allow access to our neuro-diverse applicants.

An amazing team doing amazing work!

The Mind Shift professionals that strive each day to prove how valuable people on the autism spectrum are to the world of work are an incredible bunch. If you ever need insight on autism employment, any of them could provide it.

Their strengths are numerous, but here's a quick sentence on each.

Margie Gray - Unbelievable insight into the nuances of autism and employment from the individual's perspective. 

Cortnee Jensen - A master at building relationships and seeing the synergies between Mind Shift's mission and the people that make up a community.

Evan Ackerman - Remarkable capability in assessing and directing the strengths of people on the spectrum to daily business tasks.

Joy Kieffer - Showing a great talent in bringing together the day-to-day business needs of a business partner with the capacity of a Mind Shift specialist team.

James Whirlwind Soldier - Driven to help businesses see the wisdom and value to their culture and their bottom line in working with Mind Shift.

If any of those topics are interesting to you or someone you know, please reach out to us! You can also pass along this blog and the sign-up information below to your friends, co-workers, managers, supervisors, colleagues, etc, if you'd like to see more of Mind Shift in your community.

-Tony Thomann, Executive Director

The Cultural Value of Employment

In the article, “Increasing Autism Employment: An Anthropologist’s Perspective”, Michael Bernick talks about three shifts in workplace culture regarding neurodiversity employment:

1.      The fact that businesses are becoming more aware of neurodiversity in our society.

2.      The movement to recognize the economic value of neurodiversity employment.

3.      The movement to support neurodiversity employment for reasons other than the economic value it brings.

When the author discusses the third point, he brings up an idea that has been discussed in the Mind Shift offices, and especially relates to the topic of Anthropology.  It’s the point that so much of who we are, how we spend our time, and how we define ourselves is written into what we do for a living. 

How much time do we spend with people, and in activities, that are directly or indirectly related to employment?  How much do we think about work and talk about work?  For all of us, the answer is probably a lot.  Employment is a large part of life.  It’s who we are.  When we are asked “what do you do?”, it’s how we answer, even though we do a lot more than just what we get paid to do.

Every organization that employs neurodiverse individuals should remember that they are not only making great hiring decisions that will positively affect their organization’s profitability, but are also giving their neurodiverse employees an opportunity for a cultural experience that they may not have had access to previously. 

The link to Mr. Bernick’s article is posted below for those of you who would like to learn more about the Anthropology of Diversity Employment:

Mind Shift Mug Shots

Carl and Julie Peterson's support is making shift happen. A win for the first 12 businesses that have found great employees! A win for the 22 talented people who have found great employers!

Carl and Julie Peterson's support is making shift happen. A win for the first 12 businesses that have found great employees! A win for the 22 talented people who have found great employers!

Thanks to a generous donation of some truly awesome mugs, Mind Shift can tell the world when "Shift Happens" in workplaces in our communities. Be watching for these inspiring posts on our Facebook and Twitter feeds...

Competitive Advantage

Dan Tarrence, our Milwaukee-area founding board member, saw this article in the Harvard Business Review. It has both a good overview and an in-depth look at the impact of including people with neuro-diversity, like people on the autism spectrum, in the work force.

I highly recommend the end where it explores considering neuro-diversity inclusion as an innovation and helping your company adapt not to different types of workers, but instead adapt to innovation.

Take a read!


Milwaukee and Islands of Brilliance

As Mind Shift works to start operations in Milwaukee, I want to recommend our friends at Islands of Brilliance.

Run by Mark and Margaret Fairbanks, they are doing incredibly interesting work with young people on the autism spectrum. Check out their work here.

What has been so thrilling when talking to Mark and Margaret is their shared vision of changing how people on the spectrum are perceived. A vision we at Mind Shift share.

Their website has amazing stories and does a great job at describing their work. It's pretty amazing.

-Tony Thomann

Hire for Culture Fit, not just Role Qualifications


When looking for a new recruit, employers typically focus on the needs of the particular role or position.  They ask: ‘Can the new employee take over the tasks of the old employee?”  But cultural and organizational impact is also important. Individuals with autism often bring characteristics to a business that can contribute to a healthy and sustainable culture.

Here are 5 ways that individuals with autism can benefit business culture:

1.      Integrity and honesty: Individuals with autism often are characterized as having black and white thinking. They “tell it like they see it.” While this honesty can be surprising, it is also effective in getting to the heart of issues that are often disguised behind niceties and office politics. This allows issues to be resolved long before they reach a boiling point.

2.     Focus: Individuals with ASD often excel at tasks that can seem repetitive and overly complex.  Their ability to focus for extended periods of time allow them to efficiently engage in the task at hand, often surpassing expected deadlines and falling well below acceptable margins of error.

3.     Detail Orientation: Specialists often are able to process and work with complex sets of data effectively and over long periods of time. They are able to find differences and changes in patterns that might typically be overlooked.  They will not only find the needle in the haystack, they will enjoy it.

4.     Process Optimization: Often, with their eye for detail, individuals with autism will recognize steps that aren’t necessary to complete the objective, and won’t hesitate to communicate these inefficiencies. This can lead to a fresh perspective on old systems, which can lead to time and money saving changes that will benefit the organization.

5.     Loyalty and commitment:  There is a saying about individuals with ASD: they don’t dig many holes, they dig one hole deep.  Individuals with autism aren’t typically jockeying for that next promotion or great business to jump to. They want to be accepted and appreciated for the skills and ability they bring to the job, and want the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way.   

Because of the way they process information, and the unique way they see the world, individuals with autism bring value to a business not only in their ability to excel at particular tasks and roles, but also in the way they influence the organization as a whole.    



Exciting Times!

When we bring a specialist on board with a business partner, it is rewarding and gratifying to see the reaction to their new work, co-workers and workplace. So many of our folks have little to no professional work experience and have had few opportunities to contribute to the workforce in a meaningful way.

Right now, we are abuzz with activity as we expand placements with a couple of business partners and begin new relationships with a few more. We could conceivably double the number of individuals placed at partner organizations over the next couple of months. Talk about exciting. Double the positions being filled with extremely capable workers. Double the number of co-workers who feel pride in being part of organizations doing good work. Double the number of individuals experiencing the sense of being valued. Double the families knowing that independence is possible. Double my gratitude for the opportunity to do the work we do.

With more Specialists working, there is a domino effect created. We need more individuals in our assessment and training process, who will be placed, as well. We are busy on-boarding, assessing, recruiting and preparing for our next training cohort.

As our specialists take the next step in their work lives, we wish them the best. It is exciting to have a sense of being a contribution to the organizations where they work and even more exciting to know that they are improving their quality of life.

- Margie Gray, Employment Services Director

4 Ways to Increase Clarity, Transparency and Innovation in your Workplace

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is just that, a spectrum.  And as such, it is not accurate to assume there are behaviors that apply to all diagnosed with it.  But if we look at characteristics common among those diagnosed with ASD, we are able to gain an understanding of it, and can work to make an environment where everyone can thrive.  

Here are 4 simple ways to make your office ASD-friendly that will benefit your entire organization:

  1. Clearly define expectations:  Often individuals with ASD are “black-and-white” thinkers.  They can’t always interpret more nuanced, passive communication.  Because of this, clearly defining what is expected and what success looks like, can benefit their effectiveness.  And by alleviating the ambiguity of expectations for all employees, businesses will find opportunities for greater accountability and positive outcomes.
  2. Create a less distracting work environment:  Individuals with ASD can be acutely affected by the work environment.  This means that florescent light, or subtly buzzing machinery, or an odd smell emanating from the break room can become a distraction.  A person on the spectrum will quickly and honestly communicate any of these distractions, while a neuro-typical worker will suffer from them in silence or in ignorance until their effects on productivity or mood becomes apparent.
  3. Create an opportunity for safe, clear, communication: ASD is often referred to as a social disability, and with it come challenges to navigating the social environment most take for granted.  By creating a workplace where everyone can feel safe communicating, all employees will feel more inclined to speak up, and know their communication will be received and appreciated. This will result in a transparent culture, a trusting workforce, and an increase in company loyalty. This can also result in more frequent procedural innovation.
  4. Focus on strengths:  Too often, we assess performance to improve upon weaknesses instead of working to reinforce strengths.  This creates an expectation on the employee to “fix” themselves so they more closely align with expectations.  By focusing on strengths, and areas where the employees excel, we can feel confident that the individual is in the right seat.  Instead of covering a weakness they are embracing a strength.

We can move beyond our notion  that individuals on the spectrum face work challenges that are unique only to them.  When we do, these simple changes can lead to opportunities for all of us to be more productive (and happier) members of our organizations.



Transformational Discoveries

For someone looking at our business, our focus may seem different depending on where they are standing. For our business partners it is obvious that we are committed to providing talented individuals to add value to their operations. But from where our specialists stand, the focus is quite different.

While working with a specialist recently to sort through an opportunity for employment, I was reminded that we are a different kind of employer. In going through the list of requirements of a particular job, he identified a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. To me, it seemed so insignificant. It had to do with dress code.

We dug into the issue in conversation. I wanted to understand the source of the obstacle. After we finished our conversation, we decided that we would keep looking for a better fit for him, but I had a much better understanding than when we started. The reason for the obstacle was not what I had initially guessed.

He told me that we are the first employer that has taken the time or had the experience to really dig into the obstacles that he has in the workplace. He continued to explain that we have shown that we actually care about getting the "real" answer rather than accepting an excuse or superficial reason. Getting to the “real” reason is important to me, because then I have a better chance of finding a good fit for him in the workplace.

However, there is another, more important outcome for the specialist. In his words, the conversation meant “…having the opportunity to dive into my own spaghetti code (his term for the tangled web in his brain) and engage in some self-discovery to really understand what’s getting in my way and figure out what I’m truly capable of.” Ultimately, that means he gets to understand the value he brings to the workplace. One of our core needs as humans is to feel valuable and that IS life changing.

~ Margie Gray, Employment Services Director

75 Million!

Did you know that the workforce has around 75 million Baby Boomers who will be 70 years old in the next 15 years? 75 million!

If you have 100 people in your businesses, let's say 25 are Boomers, and you are hoping to double in size over the next 10 years, you won't just be hiring 100 new people, you'll be hiring 125. And that's with no attrition with anyone else. And you lose the Boomers experience and institutional knowledge.

Replacing that many workers is not going to happen with the current supply in the workforce. Taking time to think through succession planning, flexible positions and (this is where Mind Shift comes in) the possibilities in a larger labor pool is time well spent. 

Most of us access the labor pool through the act of "posting" a position, reviewing resumes or applications, conducting interviews, and then hiring and training a new candidate. And in the times of abundant supply (like when the Baby Boomers were all actively engaged in the labor market) it was enough. It's becoming less effective now, and it doesn't extend into the pool far enough to find the variety of workers needed to run a business.

Mind Shift believes that people on the autism spectrum can contribute meaningful work and offer employers a different entrance into the larger labor pool. Even by considering a Specialist, a business is building what will become more and more necessary as the boomers leave the workforce.

So consider that today, in your own place of work, which of your employees/co-workers is part of the 75 million. (Maybe, you are a part of the 75 million.) Are you ready for the day that that person is no longer there? Have you considered how the variety of tasks they do will be done? Could a Mind Shift specialist do work that would allow you to begin better succession planning?

Boomers leaving the workforce is an absolute. Know what it will do to the operations of your workplace, because a change from those 75 million is going to be dramatic.

Giving Invincibility?

It is difficult to describe the incredible feeling that you get when someone believes in you, comes alongside you and when someone invests in you. It is a powerful feeling. For me, it is the closest thing to invincibility I have ever experienced. The feeling that, with people beside me, I can do ANYTHING. Thank you for coming alongside the talented people with autism that we train, showing them that they are worth investing in, and for believing in their incredible talent and value.

135 people, 11 businesses, a Kiwanis club and a church all came together and we raised $42,426 in just ONE day!  We came together from 40 cities in 10 states and 2 countries. We came together because we believe in investing in the incredible talent and value of people on the autism spectrum.

A special thank you to the four families, that have asked to remain anonymous, that provided $16,000 in matching money to help spur us on to greater generosity.

And finally, stay tuned, because we are not yet done. The Dakota Medical Foundation and the Impact Foundation (the brains, brawn and heart behind Giving Hearts Day) provide extra grants as incentives to non-profit organizations to engage more people and do better work. And this year, thanks to all of you, we are in the running for potential additional funds! We find out in April and I promise to keep you updated!

In Gratitude,

Cortnee (for the entire Mind Shift team)

And, in case you missed it, here is the video that our Giving Hearts Day Intern, Kyle, made to help tell our story...