Forrest Ross, a Mind Shift “specialist” hired by Eide Bailly for process optimization, took on the job and shrunk the anticipated number of hours for the work, doing it in less than half the time.

Oh, and Ross just happens to be on the autistic spectrum.

Mind Shift is a Fargo-based nonprofit with the goal of finding meaningful careers for people on the autism spectrum, according to James Whirlwind Soldier, business development director, who seeks to give long-term opportunities for such specialists to bring value to business.

The company is aiming to expand those services to Bismarck.

“We want businesses to understand this value … not just work with us because of a charitable mindset,” Whirlwind Soldier said. “We truly believe our specialists are the most qualified fit for the roles we’re placing them in.”

Whirlwind Soldier should know. His previous employer was a Mind Shift client.

As director of business operations for Dog ID in Fargo, it would have been easy for Whirlwind Soldier to turn Mind Shift down when approached about hiring a specialist. But after talking with his CEO, Whirlwind Soldier moved forward.

“We thought if their ‘specialist’ is able to deliver on their proposals, this is a no brainer,” he said.

And at the specialists' one-year anniversary with the company, Whirlwind Soldier realized his hesitation was unwarranted.

“They do bring great value,” he said. “All they said I could expect I received. I was just so happy to have that gentleman on our team.”

Mind Shift now works with more than 10 employers in Fargo and Minneapolis. The organization opened an office in Milwaukee and is in talks with employers near Wahpeton. It has about 30 specialists placed in careers in Fargo and Minneapolis.

Whirlwind Soldier said the specialists do a large spectrum of work, from IT and payroll and accounts processing to precision assembly for high-tech manufacturing companies.

“It’s about really listening to what they want to do and finding employment that resonates with their interests and skill set,” he said.

Those on the spectrum tend to have accuracy, efficiency and an ability to focus and look at complex data sets.

“One of the challenges we see for people with autism is they’re not adept at navigating the social world,” Whirlwind Soldier said.

Job interviews are uncomfortable and heighten their anxiety but that doesn’t mean they aren’t qualified for the work.

“Regardless of the skills and talents they bring to the table, they aren’t given the opportunity to do so,” Whirlwind Soldier said.

“It’s a really big opportunity for young adults in the area,” said Trisha Page, behavioral health services director of the Anne Carlsen Center and former state autism coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, of the organizations move to the area.

Page said employers will quickly recognize those with autism develop unique and extreme interest areas that lead to higher skill sets.

“They can excel in areas where the typical population just can’t,” she said.

Page has a son who is on the spectrum. She said, when he grows up, he could get hired as a dishwasher, but he hates to wash dishes. Instead, he likes video games. Given the chance, his interest could lead him to a career as a programmer.

“He has a real opportunity to do what he loves,” she said.

Eighty to 85 percent of adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed and those on the spectrum are less likely to be employed six years out of high school than those with other disabilities, according to Whirlwind Soldier. And they’re often paid less than other disabled workers.

With one in 68 children born with autism, one in 45 for boys, that’s a significant number of people.

“It’s really too bad because you have around 2 percent unemployment, jobs to fill and a population of individuals right here that are North Dakota loyal, looking for great jobs, who want to work and are ready to go,” Whirlwind Soldier said.

Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com

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