Research aims to help people with autism succeed in workplace

| Judy Berthiaume

From an early age, Johannah Erffmeyer has had an interest in technology and passion for helping people.

Thanks to her grandfather, the UW-Eau Claire senior also has a love for the German language.

As a Blugold, the Eau Claire native found a way to bring all those interests together by majoring in information systems and German, and immersing herself in an international research project.

“I like that technology is always changing, and I enjoy showing people how technology can improve their workflow,” Johannah says of pursuing majors in IS and German. “My grandfather was Swiss, and German was his first language, which I always thought was cool, so when I got to middle school and had to choose a language, I chose German.

“Since then, I have loved learning the German language and culture. I took German throughout high school and wanted to continue in college.”

An international research project that focuses on helping people with autism be successful in their workplace was the perfect way to bring her IS and language skills together to benefit people who often struggle to find meaningful employment, Johannah says.

For its project, the faculty-student research team examined the perceptions about whether initiatives in training and hiring people with autism can be a competitive advantage.

The researchers conducted in-person interviews, and explored the initiatives and the perceptions of employees and employers in the United States and Germany, Johannah says.

Their goal, she says, is to understand the potential of people with autism spectrum disorder to be successful members of the workforce.

The research team also studied the German model of preparing people with ASD for the workplace.

The Blugolds traveled to Germany as part of their research project because it is the leader in vocational programs for people with ASD, Johannah says.

There is a high level of unemployment among people who have autism, Johannah says.

However, with certain types of onboarding and HR programs, they can be a huge asset, particularly at tech companies, she says.

“As an IS major interested in training, it was especially interesting to see how different training programs can be effective for different people,” Johannah says.

“Additionally, as a German major, I am very interested in German cultural and business practices. Since Germany has very different business practices in terms of hiring people with disabilities, I was especially interested in this research.”

The project helped her develop skills that will be valuable in her future career, Johannah says, noting that she learned how to collect data and conduct research.

“This was exciting for me, as a German major, because we were able to collect some of the data in Germany,” Johannah says. “While in Germany, we interviewed people from various businesses and other organizations. We also toured companies and a Berufsbildungswerk, a German organization where people live and learn trade. This was especially interesting since we do not have anything like it in the U.S.”

The project has given her a better understanding of politics and business practices in the U.S. and in Germany as they relate to hiring people with disabilities, especially people with autism, Johannah says.

The research has helped her better understand just how much people with autism can be huge assets to a company, says Johannah, who is interested in the field of IT training.

“This research has given me knowledge and a better understanding of how to better service and accommodate people with autism so they can be their best,” Johannah says.

In addition to her research in Germany, Johannah also studied abroad for a semester in Salzburg, Austria.

She also is currently on a research team studying the effectiveness of an interactive video on phishing email identification.

Johannah also serves as a campus ambassador, is a software trainer in Learning and Technology Services, is the president of the German Club, has received two UW-Eau Claire leadership awards, and is active in several IS and language honor societies and organizations.

To fulfill her service-learning hours, Johannah volunteers at the L.E. Phillips Senior Center in Eau Claire, helping people with their technology needs and supporting its German Club.

This summer, Johannah will complete an internship at 3M, where she also interned a year ago.

Johannah, who will graduate in December, hopes to find a job in the IS field that allows her to also use her German language skills.

Eventually, she hopes to work and live abroad.

Photo caption: Senior Johannah Erffmeyer combined her passions for technology, helping people and the German language in an international research project.