He's nervous and awkward with people, can't tell the difference between biting sarcasm and sincere praise, and doesn't take well to crowded rooms, loud noises or sudden interruptions.

He's just about the worst multitasker you'll ever see.

He's also one of your best employees.

Workers on the autism spectrum don't always fit in at first, but with training and a little extra consideration, they can be among the most innovative and detail-oriented employees.

That was the message Thursday from 3M, Cargill and Best Buy managers who took the stage at 3M's "Autism and Employment" forum, which was organized by the St. Paul-based Autism Society of Minnesota.

For employers, here's the bottom-line: As baby boomers retire in the years ahead, companies will have to scramble to fill openings at all levels, from janitors to engineers. Accommodating otherwise-talented employees who suffer from social deficits will be one way to fill the void — especially in competitive artistic and technological fields that tend to draw on those with forms of autism.

"You get the people who are kind of quirky, kind of different, and they're very good at one thing," celebrity author Temple Grandin, who has autism herself, told hundreds of attendees at 3M's Maplewood headquarters. "Don't try to de-geek the geek. You can't make him something he's not."

Grandin is a longtime Cargill consultant, prolific writer and expert on animal behavior whose life story has turned her into


a kind of spokeswoman for the autistic.

A professor at Colorado State University and possibly the best-known national figure with autism spectrum disorder, she served as a screenplay consultant on last year's "Temple Grandin," an HBO biopic starring Claire Danes.

The film, which won seven Emmy Awards, featured an unflinching portrayal of Grandin's isolated, socially awkward childhood in the 1950s, before much was known about the disorder, as well as her later struggles in the workplace.

Grandin said autism — and a related disorder, Asperger syndrome — describes a wide range of people who grapple with the condition at different levels. The basic common thread is that the "interoffice"-like communications inside the brain have been disconnected, making it hard to process social information. Many suffer from sensory overload, too, and are sensitive to loud noises, the bustle of open-air work environments and fluorescent lighting.

But other parts of the brain are often hyperfocused. Grandin said that when most people are asked to think of a church steeple, they generalize a generic steeple in their minds based on their associations with the word. Not her "photojournalistic" brain. She instantly calls up a detailed image of a specific steeple she's seen, almost like an Internet surfer searching Google for images.

"When you disconnect some of the social circuits, the geek circuits (flourish)," she said. "Autism is a true continuum. There's no difference between Asperger's and 'geek.' "

For employers, she said, that may mean having to give an autistic employee explicit instructions such as "Don't call customers fat."

"Don't be subtle," she told the audience, recalling how hard it was for her to function at her first few jobs. "It's got to be specific. There's a scene in the movie where an executive slams down deodorant on a desk and says, 'You stink, use it.' ... That actually happened."

The advice, delivered tactlessly, stung. Nevertheless, in terms of improving relations with her co-workers, she soon became grateful for the lesson.

Grandin said that because the autistic learn differently, it may be important for parents to do the thing many of them least want to do: loosen the reins a bit and allow kids to amass their own archive of experiences to learn from, whether it's ordering by themselves from a restaurant menu or holding down a neighborhood job mowing lawns.

She said it took her a long time to realize that most other people do not think in detailed pictures and cannot see intricate engineering designs in their mind's eye the way she can. It took her even longer to pick up on basic body language.

"I didn't know people had these secret

(Pioneer Press: Ginger Pinson) Gabe Bonham, 29, right, an employee at 3M in the skin and wound care division was hired by 3M about seven months ago. Bonham is autistic and says he owes his success to the hard work of his parents, Gretchen and David Bonham, MD, left. The three attended the Temple Grandin lecture at 3M on Thursday. Grandin, a famous author and animal behavior expert was the keynote speaker at the Autism and Employment Forum held at 3M headquarters in St. Paul on Thursday, Feburary 17. Grandin, who is autistic herself encouraged an audience of about 900 to look beyond the social awkwardness of austism and look at all the many talents that prospective employees could bring to the table. (Pioneer Press: Ginger Pinson) (Ginger Pinson)
little eye signals until I was 50 years old and read about it in a book," she said.

Grandin noted how important it is for people with varying levels of autism to sell themselves to prospective employers using portfolios or concrete examples of their work. Social cues are often too difficult for the autistic, making job interviews potentially disastrous.

"I've never sold a single job with my personality," she said.

Larry Moody, a board member with the Autism Society, said in an interview that he was successful enough as a chemical engineer to survive waves of staff cuts at various jobs and retire at age 50 with a sizable nest egg.

"I required more management than others, but I produced at a higher level, faster and more accurately," he said.

Moody is now on the board of a new startup effort, Autism Works, that aims to place autistic professionals in highly skilled industries, much as Eagan-based Lifeworks places disabled workers in lower-skilled employment.

Through Lifeworks, Gabe Bonham, 29, has worked for 3M for seven months, doing everything from data entry to cleaning glassware. Bonham, who has Asperger syndrome, said the job allows him to live in a Maplewood apartment, independent of his parents in Hastings.

Linda Ireland, a partner with the Aveus consulting firm, told the crowd "if we changed hiring and retention practices matched to people with autism, everybody wins."

Ireland then showed a brief clip from the "Temple Grandin" movie in which Grandin's high school science teacher tells her mother that the girl is "different, but not less."

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172.