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NORMAL — Reasonable accommodations in workplaces and welcoming recreation and leisure centers for people with autism are among goals of a community campaign announced Tuesday.

The Autism Friendly Community campaign — announced at the Marriott Hotel & Conference Center by Autism McLean and Marcfirst — is an effort to help businesses, the service industry and community organizations to better understand and work with people with autism.

"One in 45 people is on the autism spectrum," said Kari Sandhaas, Autism McLean vice president and chairwoman of the new campaign. With more than 2,500 people in McLean County with autism, "a sizable percentage of the community is touched by autism," she said.

"But people with autism are often overlooked," especially as they become adults, she said.

"It's hidden. We fly under the radar," said Marty Murphy of Normal, who has autism.

Because many people don't understand autism, many people on the autism spectrum are unemployed. People with autism often have difficulties with social interaction, information processing and sensory sensitivities, which means that some people with autism don't make it past job interviews, said Mike Matejka, a member of the Autism Friendly Community committee.

While the employment rate for people with autism statewide is 10 percent, the people with autism supported by Marcfirst have an employment rate of 60 percent, said Marcfirst CEO Laura Furlong.

That's because Marcfirst has a supported employment program that helps people with autism and other disabilities to find and retain jobs through job coaching and reasonable accommodations, she said.

"Some people need more coaching than others," said Brian Pihl of Normal, who has autism and works as a laundry attendant at the Marriott.

"We're not Rain Man," Murphy said. "It's a spectrum. Some of us can do calculus. Some of us can fold towels."

"People on the autism spectrum are reliable, enthusiastic employees," Pihl said. "The employees benefit and the community benefits."

Accommodations may include earplugs to filter noise and dark glasses to filter fluorescent lighting, Murphy said.

As more people are diagnosed with autism, it's important for businesses to understand how to employ and accommodate people with autism, Murphy said.

The Autism Friendly Community campaign invites people to go to to take a survey to determine whether your business or organization is autism friendly, Sandhaas said.

The site will be populated with ideas for businesses and organizations to be more welcoming to people with autism and will include resources and organizations that can help employers with information and training, Sandhaas said.

Michael Mace, a 19-year-old Heartland Community College student with a twin brother with autism, collected 600 signatures in one month from McLean County residents who support more job opportunities for people with autism.

"This is the backbone of this community saying 'This is a real issue,'" Mace said.

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech


Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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