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Polaris program for autistic adults begins

Pierre Quenneville, participant in the Polaris Enterprise program, practicing his skills at the mini-market at Wagar Adult Education Centre. (Photo, Andre Pereira)
Montreal - Monday, November 30, 2020

Pierre Quenneville, participant in the Polaris Enterprise program, practicing his skills at the mini-market at Wagar Adult Education Centre. (Photo, Andre Pereira)

By Nick Katalifos

After a delay due to COVID-19, the Polaris Enterprise education and employment training program for adults with an autism spectrum disorder was finally able to launch at Wagar Adult Education Centre of the English Montreal School Board this school year.

As reported in the Summer 2020 edition of Inspirations. this is an industry-based program that was initiated by Giant Steps School and Resource Centre in Montreal in partnership with Wagar, the Transforming Autism Care Consortium, Loblaw (Weston Canada) and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The first cohort of students has begun their classes and training at Wagar. The “mini-market,” which was installed in the school cafeteria (graciously donated by Maxi of Weston Canada), has been a most critical component of the work-training program during the pandemic. The students utilize it extensively for training purposes before ultimately embarking upon their stage opportunities.

The 10 participants of this first cohort are also benefiting from the use of virtual reality technology, allowing them to remotely “walk through” a Maxi store from the comfort of their class, in an effort to familiarize themselves with its layout and products in preparation of their stages and, ultimately, employment opportunities. This approach takes into consideration the principles of neurodiversity and can be redeployed by any employer, benefitting all potential employees.

In addition to creating awareness on the business benefits of hiring autistic individuals within Loblaw itself, the Polaris team launched (earlier in November) an online series to shine a light on other organizations working to accelerate the employment of autistic adults. The nine-part Polaris Enterprise Virtual Leadership Series showcased interviews with top business and community leaders, who discuss what they are presently doing to tap into the diverse talents of neurodiverse candidates. These individuals include major international corporate leaders as well as successful local entrepreneurs, such as José Velasco, head of SAP’s Autism at Work Program; Stephan Marcoux, director general of Pleins Rayons; and Garth Johnson, chief executive officer of Auticon Canada, whose companies hire a wide range of employees with very different skill sets. Dubbed “Virtual Coffee Chat with Paul Karwatsky,” the individual interviews are conducted by Karwatsky, a recent addition to the Giant Steps team who left his CTV news anchor position a few months ago to focus on autism awareness.

Of course, the key focus of the project is to encourage autistic individuals to enter programs that can lead to employment. Therefore, Polaris Enterprise also offers monthly presentations by autistic mentors, who discuss their own real-life experiences – both successes and challenges. Participants in the program hear first hand from individuals who fully understand the realities they face and from a wide variety of experiences – within an extensive range of employment sectors.

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Nick Katalifos is the principal of Wagar Adult Education Centre, chair of Giant Steps School and Resource Centre, board member of Transforming Autism Care Consortium and special advisor to Inspirations.