Jake Buchnat: Navigating the Workforce with Exceptional Needs
Updated: Nov 10
By Margo Marie McManus
Meet Jake Buchnat, a proud Verizon Connect employee who believes being open about his autism diagnosis in his workplace has improved his work environment and team relationships. Jake has been with Verizon since his first internship with the company in 2018. After working full time as a Sales Operation Analyst, he was promoted to Field Operations Senior Analyst last year.
Jake was 12 years old when he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, now called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). "I think my family knew I had something—I had a tic disorder—but I didn't know what ASD was at that point," he recalled. Things changed little following his diagnosis aside from being put on medication to help him manage some of his tics.
Jake grew up in the Chicago area and attended small Catholic private academies through middle school. There were few accommodations available for students, but he did not feel the need for assistance in academics outside of reading comprehension. He warmly remembered an eighth-grade English teacher who understood that not everyone has an aptitude for reading: "She basically held office hours just for me so we could review the chapter of the book we were reading." Higher education was always in Jake's life plan, and his rigorous high school left him feeling prepared for college-level courses.
Jake attended Bradley University and majored in Management Information Systems (MIS). He admits to having a "rough freshman year." He initially declared computer science as his field of study, something he feels many people on the spectrum are intentionally pushed toward, even when there might be better options. The dominance of the Greek scene overwhelmed him in the school's social structure. However, after meeting members of a fraternity who were all MIS majors, Jake realized he wanted to change his to match: “I hadn't known that major existed before, but I liked the business part of it.” So, Jake switched to MIS where he could earn a business degree and still retain all the credits earned for programming. He also joined the fraternity, which he says served as the door that really changed his life socially, allowing him to enjoy the next two and a half years nurturing new friendships.
In 2018, Jake was delighted to land his first-ever internship, especially as he'd experienced difficulty when it came to participating in job interviews. Jake had a few previous work experiences, including time as a golf caddy. While he wasn't too fond of the job, he worked competently. But unfortunately, when Jake searched for employment, he encountered the popular misconception that he was incapable of performing well just because he had autism.
Despite knowing he had just as much to offer potential employers as anyone else, his struggles with job interviews contributed to the feeling that maybe he was falling into the damaging stereotype. For example, when an interviewer asked him to talk about himself, Jake says he was confused about whether to focus on his assets from a work perspective or share more personal information. He also felt he rarely knew if he gave a good first impression and believed his stutter and occasional difficulty forming sentences on the spot detracted from his appeal as a job candidate.
When Jake was chosen for his internship with Verizon Connect in Rolling Meadows, IL, he attributed his successful interview experience to two major things: useful, applicable practice and networking. As part of a business fraternity, Jake was able to participate in an event where practice interviews were conducted. He found the feedback and the chance to test himself invaluable. Then, in his junior year, Jake was invited to attend a conference in Kansas City, where he took part in a workshop on resume building. It gave him a list of words to use to boost his best qualities on a resume, and he still uses them today.
Jake took his internship by storm, putting out whatever mini fires popped up in his workday and doing his job admirably. He impressed the customer success manager and formed a useful connection with her; they are still in contact years later. He is certain his relationship with his supervisor, who thought he was "very professional throughout the internship and performed all my duties and tasks, like, per specifications," was essential to his later hiring into a full-time position. He also met another individual during his internship who helped convince Jake to move to Charlotte, NC, where he began working as a full-fledged Verizon employee.
Initially, Jake hid his autism from everyone at Verizon except his supervisor and Human Resources (HR). For all three months of the internship, Jake masked his neurodivergence, but once he moved into his full-time role, he knew keeping that up forever wasn't feasible. He needed to interact with many sales managers, lead calls in one-on-one meetings, and allow room for others to give him feedback he might not be prepared to hear. These kinds of social interaction are some of the most challenging aspects of his job, and it would eventually lead to a slip-up in his masking. He also sometimes struggles with his self-esteem and confidence in his position. "Being autistic in my job definitely makes it a lot harder. I feel like I have to work twice as hard to get the results other people on my team can just do naturally," he stated. But it wasn't until he was inspired by a coworker that he decided to reveal his diagnosis on his own terms.
With the help of the Black Originators, Leaders, and Doers (BOLD) and Employee Resource Group (ERG), this coworker shared a lot about herself and what she was doing to help others in the ERG learn about their ancestry. She did so in an email to her entire team and received praise for her efforts. Jake realized he could do the same and gain respect from the company as well. So, on National Autism Acceptance Day in 2020, Jake emailed his entire team revealing his diagnosis. It went even better than he was hoping: "And I got praise; it even went up to, like, I believe, a senior director who reported directly to the Vice President of [the] rising business group."
Now, Jake dreams of a promotion to an HR role. "Like, diversity, equity, inclusion analytics. That's kind of what motivated me. That's kind of what pushed me towards the HR direction," he said, "and I feel like I have a lot to offer from an HR position." He's currently part of the advanced ERG, which is the employee resource group for people with disabilities, and has led several presentations, including one where the ERG compared the coming out experience as a disabled individual to that of someone in the LGBTQ+ community, in which he worked with the coworker who inspired his own coming out.
Jake also has ideas for other presentations, such as how to make jobs and job interviews more accessible to candidates with exceptional needs, that would be given during Disability Pride Month. In addition to advocating for better methods of encouraging and employing the exceptional needs workforce, Jake believes those already working must remember it's OK to ask for help and that doing so does not mean they are incapable: "That's something I've been struggling to teach myself because I feel like it's, like, a person with the same job and same, like, pay level as me, if I have to ask them for help, it makes me feel like it's going to look negative on me. Like, why do you have the same job as me, but I don't know how to do this part of it? But it needs to be done if we ever want to grow or be promoted."
Jake Buchnat can be reached at @jbuch01 on Instagram.
Margo Marie McManus is an editorial assistant for Exceptional Needs Today. She graduated from Clemson University in 2021 with a degree in Graphic Communications. Her interest in the exceptional needs community and autism awareness was first piqued when assisting students in the Writing Lab as a consultant. She furthered her interest by interning and writing articles for Autism Parenting Magazine and Exceptional Needs Today. She enjoys reading and writing poetry and has over 15 poems published in various magazines and anthologies, including Teenage Wasteland Review and The Chronicle. She's also a big fan of cats.
Images courtesy of Jessica Bonardi from Inside Verizon