Early in his career, Ian Strongwater says he often felt like a square peg in a round hole. For Ian, who has an autism spectrum disorder, corporate jobs seemed rigid and the workplace lacking in basic support. He also says he struggled with the social aspects of office life, which left him feeling like an outcast. Only a few years out of college, Ian found himself worried about the future. And then in 2015, he discovered the Aspire Works program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It felt like my last shot,” says Ian.
“Aspire Works helps place talented employees on the autism spectrum into supportive teams. We do this in part by helping workplaces modify their hiring and management practices so that a person’s neurodiversity becomes a competitive advantage — for the individual, their team and the entire organization.”
Elise Wulff, MEd
Part of Mass General’s acclaimed Aspire program for children, teens and adults, Aspire Works is designed to help men and women with a high cognitive autism spectrum disorder, or a related profile, gain real-world work experience with organizations that are committed to neurodiversity. In Ian’s case, that meant interning with Liberty Mutual Foundation — the charitable arm of Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance. Six years later, Ian — now a full-time employee at Liberty Mutual — knows exactly where he belongs.
“I’m incredibly grateful to be on this path and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Aspire program,” he says.
Bridging the Divide
For people with an autism spectrum disorder, the workplace can be an uncomfortable and challenging place. For some, it’s the standard interview process that puts them at a disadvantage. For others like Ian, who are well-suited to the demands of their individual roles, the social and cultural aspects of the workplace can make it uncomfortable. As a result, it’s estimated that as many as 85% of college graduates with autism are under-employed or unemployed. And yet, employer surveys report that neurodiverse workers tend to be loyal, focused and creative. The Aspire Works was created to bridge this divide, help participants achieve success and build the confidence they need to be independent in the workplace.
“Organizations are increasingly recognizing that barriers exist for neurodiverse employees,” says Elise Wulff, MEd, senior program manager with Aspire Works. “Aspire Works helps place talented employees on the autism spectrum into supportive teams. We do this in part by helping workplaces modify their hiring and management practices so that a person’s neurodiversity becomes a competitive advantage — for the individual, their team and the entire organization.”
A Valued Resource from the Get-Go
Each prospective intern begins their journey by meeting with an Aspire career coach, who helps identify the applicant’s specific skill set, strengths, areas of need and goals. In parallel, the Aspire team assesses each internship opportunity according to the requirements of the role, environment and employee feedback to make sure that it is a good fit. Once a match is made, the career coach helps the new intern integrate and navigate the work environment, and acts as a resource and advisor for the employer.
The career coach remains in contact with both the intern and the intern’s workplace supervisor through the initial training and throughout the duration of the internship. During the experience, participants have access to specialized programming that is designed to help them acclimate, navigate the workforce and build essential skills.
“From the beginning of the process, our Aspire contact was an incredible resource,” says Melissa MacDonnell, president of Liberty Mutual Foundation and vice president, Community Investments at Liberty Mutual Insurance. “They helped us understand how we could utilize Ian’s strengths to enhance our work and become a more inclusive team.”
After the internship experience ends, Aspire also works with each participant to identify the next step in their career path. In many cases, the participating employers have offered to bring the interns in as full-time employees.
“There’s a preconception about people on the autism spectrum that they’re all the same, and they all have the same deficiencies and same advantages — but we’re all unique. If you can recognize that uniqueness, and give that person the right opportunity and support structure, everyone benefits.”
Since joining Liberty Mutual as full-time employee, Ian has risen steadily through the ranks — earning three separate promotions and the genuine respect and trust of his coworkers, who describe him as engaged, passionate and highly collaborative.
“He has positioned himself as a source of trusted information, insight and data and a true thought partner,” says Ruth Coffin-Villaroel, director of operations on the Community Investments team and Ian’s manager.
In 2021, Ian led the application process that earned Liberty Mutual recognition as one of “The Civic 50” — a list honoring the 50 most community-minded companies in the United States.
“Liberty Mutual has a deep and longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusivity,” says Melissa MacDonnell. ”Working with Ian and Aspire has been one great example of how we honor and embody that commitment. It truly has opened a door and changed us as a company. We’re so proud to be a part of it.”
In addition to its partnership with Aspire Works, Liberty Mutual is invested in creating an accessible and inclusive workplace where employees of all abilities can bring their full selves to work. One example is its employee resource group, Able@Liberty + Allies, which is dedicated to fostering awareness, understanding and support for people with disabilities, caregivers and family members. With over 5,000 members, Able@Liberty has been an integral part of the company’s efforts to meet the needs of people with disabilities.
“There’s a preconception about people on the autism spectrum that they’re all the same, and they all have the same deficiencies and same advantages — but we’re all unique,” says Ian. “If you can recognize that uniqueness, and give that person the right opportunity and support structure, everyone benefits.”
To learn more about Aspire and the Aspire Works program, please contact us.