Focus on Abilities | Kraus-Anderson Employees Share Insights on Autism
by Krystal Burton
At KA, engaged employees with a wide variety of abilities and skills make us a more innovative company. April is National Autism Awareness Month and we are pleased to highlight two of our talented team members as they talk about their experiences working at KA.
Jake O’Connor, Office Assistant, Circle Pines Yard operations. Jake has been with KA 4+ years.
Brenden Nickels, Senior Office Assistant, KA Twin Cities office. Brenden has 9 years with KA.
Tell me one important thing about yourself that people at KA might not know.
Jake: I enjoy performing. During college, I was in three plays in the theatre department. The highlight for me was a play, consisting mostly of actors from diverse backgrounds, which included many differently-abled persons in the cast. It was a big hit: we toured all over Minnesota and I even received a personal award for it. That was one of my proudest achievements in life. I think there’s something about portraying another character, especially for someone like me, who struggles with outward expression and interacting with others. It’s a way for others to see what I am like.
Brenden: I have hyperlexia, which is very similar to autism. Basically, I describe it as my brain works differently than others. I am proud to say that even though I took special education classes when I was little and I had individual education plans (IEP’s), I got a regular education just like everyone else, and I ultimately got to graduate from high school and college. My mother made sure of that!
What do you like best about working at KA?
Jake: I have the freedom to perform my job duties in a method and at a pace that I am comfortable with. That is very important to my success. Many people on the Spectrum have difficulties finding or keeping a job and usually end up somewhere where they are unhappy. I am glad that there are beginning to be more and more workplaces where people like us can work and feel good about what they do.
Brenden: Every day is different. I think my job here is kind of like a firefighter, whenever I get a project, it’s like the bell ringing, and I spring into action. I’m known for my “same-day service” around here, which is something that I’m definitely proud of.
What do you feel is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about individuals on the Autistic Spectrum?
Jake: Some people say people with autism lack the ability to empathize. It might be true to a degree, but every person is different. I know many people on the Spectrum and they are vastly different in their skill areas. Some struggle with empathy as well as socializing with people, but for others, you would never notice anything out of the ordinary. For me personally, I often don’t know how to approach people or to express my emotions in a way that people can read. I can guess what reaction people might be expecting, but I don’t think they always realize how tuned in I actually am… because I don’t possess the skills to show it on the outside.
Brenden: I think many people see autism as a bad thing, like it’s some kind of scarlet letter. But I think those with autism, or anything related to it, can function as well as regular people can. There may be someone that you know that might be autistic and you may not even know it.
Tell me a brief story about a time when your ability was/is an advantage for you.
Jake: I can say that I’ve met a lot of good people through the years that I definitely would’ve never had the chance to know if I wasn’t on the Spectrum. Many of them are either also on the Spectrum or have some other condition or diverse quality.
Brenden: One advantage that I’ve had is that I naturally gained my ability to read. When I was in kindergarten, while the rest of my classmates in my regular education class were still learning how to read, I could read at a 4th grade level.
If you can provide one tip to KA team members that will help us all work better together, what will that be?
Jake: Ask me questions if there is something you want to know. I may not be very good at spoken conversations, but I love to write and email. Being connected is very important to me. I don’t want anyone to think I am inaccessible for any reason. It puts me more at ease when I know that people understand the daily challenges I face in social situations. Understanding and trust-building can often lead to an improved rapport as I become more comfortable communicating with them.
Brenden: Talk to your colleagues more, so that both you and they can become more comfortable. As soon as you start to get to know each other, you may feel okay disclosing more info about yourself, and it can develop a nice working relationship / friendship.
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Krystal Burton is Lead Project Coordinator at Kraus-Anderson Construction Company, working in the Twin Cities office. And thanks to Opportunity Partners for bringing us Brenden and Jake!View Comments