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Dejected and humiliated - Ramone McKenzie’s struggle for employment in the face of autism

Ramone McKenzie was a picture of dejection as he wondered aloud why prospective employers continue to ignore him, despite him possessing five STEM Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) subjects and certification from HEART/NSTA Trust.

The 25-year-old Rock Hall, St Andrew, resident, who has been job hunting for some time, is convinced that he is being treated unfairly because he is different.

Ramone is autistic, a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.

"Sometimes I feel like I am not going to survive in this world because this world is for normal people," a despondent sounding McKenzie told THE WEEKEND STAR.

A past student of Pembroke Hall High School in St Andrew, McKenzie has CSEC passes in integrated science, biology, electrical engineering, mathematics and English language. He also has level 2 HEART certification in industrial electronics.

"I went on a lot of interviews and I feel confused and frustrated because I don't get through. I was confused because I want to know why they didn't respond to me, and sometimes I feel like they ghosted me. They didn't even call me back to let me know that they are not interested," he said.

McKenzie's mother, Vannet McKenzie, is equally frustrated. She stated that there are instances when she is moved to tears as she is unable to assist him in finding suitable and meaningful employment.

"He keeps saying he is an adult and he should be helping me and his grandmother. He gets really frustrated at times. There are times when he will cry, stop talking, or have anger spells as he believes he is being treated unfairly because he is different," McKenzie said.

"I do my best but I can't help him to find a job. He has worked for a short period, for about six months, and he was happy, and he worked with another company, but the supervisor said he couldn't keep him because he asked a lot of questions and needs constant supervision," she said.

McKenzie's mother, however, maintained that her son is independent and functions as any normal person.

Autism specialist Sonja Robinson Madden said there is a general lack awareness and understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

"Many are misguided or have an overgeneralised view about the characteristics. We either think people with ASD are deficient socially and cognitively or gifted in a specific area. It is a spectrum because of the diverse attributes of each individual with the diagnosis," she said. Robinson Madden said persons with autism function just as well in the workplace as a neurotypical person (someone with what is considered 'standard' brain function).

"There may be some risks in hiring depending on the nature of the job. Some autistic persons are unable to accurately understand social cues and may experience sensory overload. However, the rewards can outnumber the risks, if proper provisions are provided to include sensory breaks and increased supervision. People with autism can be extremely focused and meticulous. They are trustworthy and quite loyal," she said.

McKenzie was told by specialists that her son had mild autism when he was three years old. She recalled being brought to tears when she was told that there was no cure for the condition. But she said that Ramone started walking and calling a few words at eight months old.

"He was talking when he was two years, but around that time, he got a fever that went on for days. I took him to the University Hospital (of the West Indies) for a few days where he was admitted and he returned home. Couple months after I realised that he was mostly pointing towards things and hardly saying anything. He was my first and only child so I thought he was going through a phase," she said.

She said several months later he became ill once more and had to receive medical treatment. She said that while a doctor was inserting an IV needle in one of his veins, she became concerned that he was not speaking about the discomfort.

"He was just screaming and the nurse was wondering why he wasn't saying that it hurt, and he was almost three years old. He wasn't talking, so they referred him to the child guidance clinic where an assessment was done which revealed that my son was autistic," she said.

Despite the gut-wrenching diagnosis, she was determined to do right by her son. She enrolled him in school and kept supporting his education. He played his part by getting good grades, but he now feels let down due to his inability to land a job.

"I feel humiliated, rejected and ghosted," he told THE WEEKEND STAR.

The young man said he has sought six-month apprenticeship stints in organisations to allow him to gain experience but no one has paid him any attention.

"Overtime I got worn down and mentally drained. I sometimes don't feel motivated to go out and search for a job," he said.