Episode 5

Published on:

29th May 2023

Breaking the Stigma: Why Autistic Workers Make Great Employees in Manufacturing with Peter Mann

Connect with Peter Mann

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/peter-mann/

Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, Peter Mann. Peter Mann is the CEO & Founder of Virginia-based Oransi, a leading air purification company known for its efficient, intuitive, and reliable products for consumers, schools, organizations, and businesses. He is the Chair of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers' Air Cleaner Council. Peter is late diagnosed autistic and now advocates for autism awareness in the workplace. Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter Mann: Yeah, thanks, Lisa. I am excited to be here.

Lisa Ryan: share a little about your background and what led you to do what you're doing with Oransi.

Peter Mann: Sure. Yeah. I grew up in Syracuse, New York, and attended college in Rochester nearby. I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I took a Navy ROTC scholarship which effectively paid for my college. Then I was in the Navy for four years, which was interesting and unexpected since the first Gulf War started. We got sent over to the Middle East and didn't anticipate that.

After four years, I got out; I got a job at a company called Tech Data in Clearwater, Florida. They're a large computer distributor. I was there for seven years. It was exciting because this was in the nineties, was the computer industry started to take off. We went from Fortune 500 to Fortune 100, and I moved up from an individual contributor to director of Marketing Operations.

In 2000, Dell recruited me. I moved to Austin, Texas, and did some development work for dell.com, and then I moved to a marketing role where I was a marketing leader with the Dell printer launch, managed pricing strategy, and a few other things. That's when the.com bubble burst.

I was at Dell for about three years, which pushed me to start something on my own. So I co-founded an e-commerce business with another guy in Austin. I sold my part in 2009 and used those proceeds to create Oransi, focusing on indoor air quality and, specifically, air purifiers. My interest in that was because my son suffered from asthma as a child. It was rough, especially in my younger years in elementary and middle school. So I've always been interested in trying to help him and others like him who suffered from respiratory issues.

Lisa Ryan: It seems you do one thing, and suddenly, you join the military, and you're in the Gulf War. You go into the dot com industry, and the bubble bursts. You're on all these trends; air purification hits and a pandemic.

Peter Mann: Yeah. Who knew? The pandemic was incredible because there was more demand in supply. What's been interesting is that many brands entered the market. It was more of a niche market before Covid; now, the market's gone back to more or less pre covid levels. But now there are two or three times as many brands as before. So it's going to be interesting. I would add that, during Covid, we merged with an electric motor company in Virginia that has a proprietary motor technology, which will allow us to restore manufacturing; that's where our focus is now.

What's exciting about that is we can latch onto the next trend, electrification and moving away from fossil fuels now that we have this electric motor base. We're starting with air purifiers since that's what we know, but we could make anything with an electric motor in our facility. For me, that's pretty exciting since the air purifier market, as much as it is, it's painful to say, it's become more of a commodity since there are too many brands in the space for the market size currently.

Lisa Ryan: You mentioned before the show that you were actively bringing this reshoring back from China to the United States because you can do that almost as cheaply as it was before with China. Talk a little about why that is happening and what restoring a business is like.

Peter Mann: Yeah, I have to keep relearning this lesson because it always takes longer and costs more than you, you would think. From a cost standpoint, though, on the product, what we've realized is if you're buying components or raw materials, the cost is similar here versus in China; the difference is in labor. So we've been focused on how to take labor out of the manufacturing assembly of the products. Because if you can take the labor out and make it much more efficient, you can close the gap from a cost standpoint and may make it lower cost than you can from China.

The other thing that's happening is these tariffs have been coming on, coming off. They're 25%, which is more significant than ocean freight. We got crazy expensive during Covid. So it's back to where it was pre covid. But that's another variable risk regarding sourcing from China in the longer term. We've talked to several companies, and there's interest in wanting to restore and not rely on manufacturing anything in China.

Lisa Ryan: It sounds too that you're focusing on going from fossil fu fuels to more electricity and with that clean energy mission. Talk a little bit about that. Why is that important to you?

Peter Mann: It's the right thing to do. It's the moment in time. I remember the nineties, and the computer industry was like that's all the momentum was. If you look at the government and where they're putting the funds in terms of chips, batteries, investments, several other efforts, and import tariffs. The focus is on how we make stuff here and how we make it here competitively. And you can fight it. But that's where all the momentum and the market's future are. Clean energy will be similar to what the computer industry was like in the nineties and early two-thousands.

Lisa Ryan: I'd like to spend some time talking about your journey with autism. First, finding out, you said that you were late-stage diagnosed; what were some of the signs, first of all? Then I'd like to lead the conversation regarding potentially hiring workers with autism. We look at the fact that in the labor market, we need more people, particularly in manufacturing. We have a lot of people that can do a great job, but maybe due to fear or myths, or not knowing or not being educated as far as this group of people who may make great employees if you can share from diagnosis to what you've discovered and what you're sharing now.

Peter Mann: This was something that figured out during Covid. My wife was watching a C B S morning show, and they did a profile on a woman that maybe worked for NASA, and she was describing her traits. It was a profile of her as an autistic person being successful in the workplace. When she told me her traits, it was exactly how I was. My wife watched it. She's, oh my gosh, you need to watch this. If I had gone back a couple of weeks before that, we would have had a conversation where she was upset about something that poured out her heart to me. I wasn't feeling great, and I had no response.

It went from her being upset to What was wrong with you? You don't have human emotions. I have no words, as I had, my brain was empty, and you know, when she saw the C B S Morning show, you're like, oh, that explains a lot, okay. Yeah. I watched it, and I'm like, holy cow. That's right, I went online and took an online screening tool. What's pretty interesting is that one of the leading authorities in doing these kinds of assessments or research into autism is the disguise, Simon Baron Cohen. He's a cousin to Sasha Baron Cohen. He's a Cambridge professor anyways; he has these 50 questions, and in the assessment, you get a score from zero to 50. Most people score a 16, in the 18 kinds of range; autistic folks tend to score above 30. I took it, and I scored 43 out of 50. Then I took several others, and they were all consistent. I'm like, holy cow, I want to. Get an official diagnosis. I didn't want to be like, feel like a poser, like I was then. I didn't know I was autistic, and I didn't even know a lot about autism.

I started calling the local autistic clinics or centers in this area. They're all geared towards children; then there's one. I live right by Virginia Tech, and there's one that is part of the campus, and they could do it, but they wouldn't be able to see me for a year and a half. I eventually found someone that did it via telehealth, and she's in Oregon. She did it because her husband was autistic, and she wanted to provide the service to other autistic folks, particularly underdiagnosed women. I worked with her for some months and officially got the diagnosis. Since then, I've been reading a lot and educating myself on what autism is. Even if it's not what most people think, it's a different way of thinking, perceiving, and communicating.

Some co-occurring conditions may or may not be present, such as speech, cognition, A D H D, and a whole slew of other things. So there's essential autism, and then there are co-occurring conditions, which most people think of a lot of co-occurring conditions when they think of autism. That's not the core of what autism is. But you may have those conditions as well.

Lisa Ryan: For somebody unfamiliar with it, what would be a good definition or examples or something they may need to know a little bit more about, be comfortable with what it is. Because we all have our ideas of what we think it is, but according to you, it's probably a lot different than what we believe.

Peter Mann: A lot of it is having awareness for what's going on with the autistic person. It's that our brains are wired differently. I don't view it as it's been stigmatized as a defective person. It's more like a left-handed versus right-handed person. Your brain works differently. It's not that it's a bad thing. It's different than the way 98% of the people are wired. You're in the; you're in the 2% group. That routine is essential. But you have a routine because it helps you manage anxiety. People need to stick to routines to be simple. It's a way of being your best self.

Another one that is widely prevalent with not understood is sensory sensitivity. We can discover disabling if you think of the senses, which most people find annoying. It's a level of intensity. If I go into a loud restaurant, I can hear all and none of the conversations. They're all like, if you think of Charlie Brown's teacher went to the wah wah wah. It's like they turned the volume up what allowed restaurants like me, and it becomes exhausting over a while of trying to hear conversations.

It's like when you plug all the appliances in and blow the circuit breaker, and nothing's working, then why isn't Peter joining in the conversation? And you have no idea how hard this is in this situation. The environment drives a lot of it. When I talk to other people, they're like, nobody likes that. We speak louder it's because I don't have that natural ability. There are certain filters that people have that you could filter out, like other tables that are talking and listening to the person at your table.

I don't have all those filters. I'm hearing our table's conversation two tables over, and they're all; it's like having people talking over each other is what it's like. It's exhausting. Do you tend not to put yourself in those situations to cope? That's another difference.

The other thing I have, which is helpful in the workplace, is hyper-focus; they call it a state of flow. I can, get focused on something, block out everything around me, and have all these positive chemicals going. That's served me well in the workplace because I can sit for hours on something. I know sitting for that long is not healthy, but I can get completely lost in something and shift to a higher gear that I intuitively know most people don't have.

Lisa Ryan: When you're in a loud restaurant, all the words are there, and you hear everything. But when you're in flow, you hear nothing because you're focused. Is that something that you can turn on and turn off? How do you get to flow at work and not in a restaurant?

Peter Mann: Because at work, it's something, it's a singular thing that I'm interested in. I can focus on it and then, naturally, block everything out. The problem is if somebody comes and knocks on my door and says something, it's jarring. To come out of that state is a sleep state, but it's like you're being startled.

When that happens and you can't, like in a restaurant, I can't get in a state of flow. Because I walk in, and it's woah. I can see the volume going up, and it's overwhelming. I've talked to people, and they're like, can't you get used to it? Or can't you and I'm like, to me, it's like touching a hot stove. It doesn't matter how often you feel it; it will burn. It's like there's no way around that. There's nothing anyone can do to help me in that situation other than not get into that situation. Don't touch the hot stove. My hand's not ever going to get used to it.

Lisa Ryan: From a manufacturing standpoint, because on one side, some manufacturing plants are loud, and things are going on, you could get in that routine. Where are good jobs? If you're thinking of a manufacturer, in your experience in manufacturing, where would be some good places for manufacturers to consider hiring people with your skillset?

Peter Mann: I guess what I would add is, I'm one person, and I described my experience, but it's like when they say autism, there's a massive spectrum of abilities. Some people have ADHD that I find are super creative in design—coming up with new things. Others have hyperfocus, but they can get distracted a little bit. Like me, I don't have a d c at all. I'm like all in on focus. So for me, it's like a process. If you look at Silicon Valley, they have a high percentage of autistic folks because computer programming is, you dialed in on the computer coding, and you get lost in that.

You can have someone on the assembly line that's doing specific tasks. You can get focused. I can do things other people find boring if I'm interested. That's the key. It is an engineering, but if you look at the arts, creative people like David Byrne from Talking Heads are pretty open about being autistic.

And it's different from the engineering computer traditional guy like I'm a math person. I'm like an autistic person. But other folks have different talents. It spans almost any job accounting. There isn't a limit to what folks can do. The challenge is most autistic people can't get through the interview process because if you come in, you don't make eye contact. It's like, this person's not trustworthy, or you get asked a question you have yet to think of. So we tend to be more bottom-up thinkers versus most people being top-down thinkers.

When you ask a question, if it's something we haven't thought of before, we're going through all these options and details, then it's there can be like, I do this myself with some people, like an awkward pause because I'm thinking through like, how do I best answer that? And the other people, are you there?

I get inward and have a lot going on internally, but my face shows nothing, and in an interview, it does. It could translate better. You're like, this guy's or girl is weird. I can't see them being part of our team, and it's unfortunate because these are some of the most like, hardworking, loyal people desperate to work. It's like the Ph.D. that's working at minimum wage. The unemployment numbers are crazy high, up to 80%. I don't know what the actual number is, but most autistic folks are average to above-average intelligence. The other thing is, I'm Gen X and grew up in the seventies and eighties.

When I was in elementary school, one in 2,500 was diagnosed as being autistic. Now it's more than 2% more than as high as one in 36. It's not like autistic people didn't exist before; we weren't diagnosed. Unless you have very high support needs, anyone that is a later millennial will be late diagnosed autistic. Almost none of us were diagnosed. You think of how many hundreds of millions have gone through the public school system, trying to get jobs or being diagnosed with other things and not understanding that you're autistic. I don't think there's anything wrong with anyone that's autistic or different. It's, it's when you have most people one way, and it's this is the right way to be, and then you have a small group of people who are a different way. It's, oh no, you're. Yeah, you guys are wrong.

Lisa Ryan: When it comes to workplace culture because again, there are many interesting points because we want people to get along, and we have this, this friendship, this relationship building, which is difficult for people who are on the spectrum because of what you said about not knowing how to get to those emotions or asking the question, having to spend more time processing questions that you've ever that you haven't heard before.

One of my side hustles is teaching HR law on virtual programs about the ADA; in the interview process, it's not like you can have that conversation; do you have a disability? Because, of course, that would go against ADA. How could a manufacturer craft an interview? Is it sending out the questions before time? Is it give some ideas because, as you said, if I have somebody come in and I'm interviewing, and I don't know about autism, and you're not making eye contact, and you're staring off into space when I'm asking questions, I'm going to do that.

Hey, this guy's going to be a bad fit. But if I have an awareness of that. He may, he or me, she may be an excellent employee and can do exactly what I want them to do. So we have to not only have an awareness from my standpoint but to share this with the rest of the people so that we can make those I don't even want to use the word accommodations, but that level of understanding that because this person is different doesn't mean that he's any less than anybody else on there.

Peter Mann: Yeah, I would say, you know this, I don't know who said this, but I agree with it, is that autistic folks are more like the canary and the coal mine, and changes that you make to the benefit of the autistic person helps everyone if you're doing an interview what I've seen, which when I've talked with autistic people, they're blown away by, this is It's about setting expectations and having an understanding for what to expect.

If there's an interview, give someone a document saying this is where you go. This is what time, this is who you're meeting, this is who they are, this is what you wear. These are the questions we're going to ask you. This is how your day will go for two hours. So someone can mentally prepare for that and see the questions relevant to the job they can think through, like, how do I best answer this? Because the person doing the interview wants to do the best job, but it's, The interview process is primarily set up for social extroverts, which is traditional, right?

There's this invisible hierarchy. Autistic folks tend to be at the bottom of the social order. This levels the playing field. If you go to a meeting or something and you're like, this is the agenda or a meeting, and this is what to expect.

For me, elementary school was a nightmare. Then when I got to sixth grade, I had a schedule. I knew where...

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About your host

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Lisa Ryan

As a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), an award-winning speaker and author of ten books, Lisa Ryan, CSP, works with her clients to develop employee and client engagement initiatives and strategies that keep their top talent and best clients from becoming someone else’s.
Lisa’s expertise includes: strengthening workplace culture, improving employee engagement, increasing customer retention, and initiating gratitude strategies (“Grategies”) for personal and professional benefit. Lisa’s participants enjoy her high energy, enthusiastic delivery and quick wit and they leave the session with ideas they are committed to acting on immediately to make positive workplace culture changes.
Lisa costars in two films with other experts including Jack Canfield of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” She is the Past-President of the National Speakers Association, Ohio Chapter and holds an MBA from Cleveland State University.

Relevant Experience

• Keynote, breakout or workshop speaker at more than 100 national and international conferences
• Thirteen years of industrial marketing and sales experience, including seven years in the welding industry – and yes, she does weld
• Host of “Elevate Your Engagement Levels: What You Need to Know” on the Elite Expert Network and the C-Suite Network
• Creator of “The Seven Mistakes Managers Make to Crush Company Culture” video series
• Best-selling author of ten books, including “Manufacturing Engagement: 98 Proven Strategies to Attract and Retain Your Industry’s Top Talent”
• Award-winning speaker