So much of autism literature is focused on the identification, prevention and treatment of autism. We know that there is no ‘cure’ for the disability, it is a condition of neurodevelopmental difference that most individuals will have for life.
It is important for individuals with autism (and Asperger’s Syndrome and high functioning autism) to be as prepared as possible for the adult world so that they can lead meaningful lives beyond their school years. People with autism have so many strengths and skills that can be highly coveted for certain jobs and positions that there are some employers beginning to seek out individuals on the spectrum to hire.
Unfortunately, the historical numbers to date don’t reflect these strengths in securing jobs for people with autism. In general, people with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as someone without a disability.
In a 2017 report by Drexel University’s Autism Institute, only about 14% of adults with autism had paid employment within their community. Individuals with autism had a higher rate of unemployment as compared to other individuals with disabilities (who had a reported employment rates of 58%). With this high unemployment rate also comes a higher rate of social isolation for adults on the spectrum.
Within their first two years after high school, 2/3 of young adults with autism had neither a job nor educational plans. To compare these numbers, the following groups of young adults with disabilities had secured employment in their early 20s – 74% of individuals with intellectual disabilities, 95% of individuals with learning disabilities and 91% of individuals with speech impairments or emotional disturbances.
Why do young adults with autism have such a high rate of unemployment?
According to numbers published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2018, approximately 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism. This statistic represents a 15% increase in autism prevalence as compared to numbers from 2016. While boys are 4 times more likely to be diagnosed as compared to girls, there is progress in identifying the condition in females, who do not always fit the stereotypical picture of autism that boys may.
Autism is identified by three key components of behavior:1. Persistent deficits in social interaction
Many children with autism spectrum disorder receive educationally-based services as part of their IEP (Individualized Education Program) through their local school district. Part of that document is to begin to develop a transition plan (formally an ITP – Individualized Transition Plan) once the student turns 14, to identify goals (and related services needed to achieve them) that will carry them ahead to their post-high school years.
As students graduate or complete high school, they are eligible to receive services from the school department until they turn 21. Those post-high school years should include an ITP that is focused on a student’s strengths, skills and interests so that they can make a smooth transition to adulthood. As the Drexel report found that only 58% of individuals had that ITP in place when they graduated, it is incredibly important for families and service providers to be informed about and advocate for that plan to be in place.
With the increase in autism diagnoses and the amazing job of autism awareness campaigns, much of the general public and potential employers have heard of the condition and have some familiarity with it (or can comfortably find some literature online). The broader diagnostic criteria now includes highly intelligent individuals (those with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s) and opens up services to them to help support their employment.
Every individual with autism presents differently. There are particular qualities and traits of autism in general that can make these individuals good candidates for certain jobs. There is an increasing need for a workforce that presents with the skills, thought patterns and work ethic that individuals with autism often have in common.
Many people with autism have preference for repetitive work tasks and do not typically enjoy novelty or tolerate unpredictability in their day. As compared to the general population, these types of preferences can be highly sought after because they are so rare to find in an employee.
Most adults with autism are incredibly dependable, routine driven, within the right environment can be highly focused, are extremely detail oriented, and can be very passionate about their work. Many adults with autism have extraordinary technical and math skills to offer as well.
When searching for a potential job or employment setting for a young adult with autism, capitalize on their strengths. Think about their interests – feeding or caring for animals, working with computers, mechanics, cataloging books or movies, etc. Also think about the environment – indoors or outside, seated at a desk or computer, or moving around at a garden center or doing deliveries at a hotel, office building or nursing home. Consider the amount of social interaction – conversing with the general public at a busy grocery store or interacting with just a few coworkers in an office or in a kitchen or restaurant.
Typically, individuals with autism have good long-term memory skills, so it may be important to consider a job that has minimal demands for their short-term memory; or tasks that require lots of working memory (holding several things in your head for short term retrieval).
Jobs that are highly visual are typically preferred. Think about how you could easily develop pictures or printed steps to teach a new task. Tasks that have a clear start, middle and end-point are generally good to start with as well.
When interviewing for, or beginning a new job, it will be important to be honest and transparent with a supervisor and coworkers about the social limits of the individual, so people are clear and do not misread a situation.
Interest will naturally guide young adults as they progress through their high school years. Consider tapping into a local vocational or technical program where students can potentially get credit, as this will open doors as well.
College majors with clear jobs to obtain at the end are desirable - such as computer science, accounting, engineering, library science and art (with an emphasis on commercial art or drafting) offer good employability.
Careers that involve animals – like a veterinarian, vet technician or dog trainer could be an option – individuals with autism are consistent and direct, and would do well with helping to shape animal behavior. Jobs in computer programming or software development are highly sought after, and autistic individuals often have the memory, focus and detail skills needed. A scientist, laboratory technician or research position in science may be of interest.
Some adults with autism make good journalists, as they typically “stick to the facts” and can be incredibly objective in their report of an event, where a neurotypical individual can get caught up in emotion easier. Assembly line manufacturing could be another option, as one common trait of autism is their preference for sameness and routine.
It is important to access your local resources, and get connected to your region’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program. The Social Security Administration helps to fund local VR programs to assist people with disabilities to find paid employment. Your local VR chapter will likely have relationships with potential employers and access to job coaches and trained individuals that will help facilitate entry into the workplace.
Additionally, there are several well-known employers of individuals with autism:
Large companies like Microsoft, Home Depot, CVS Caremark, AMC, Walgreens, SAP (German based technology firm with global offices), Ernst and Young (accounting), Ford, Freddie Mac (home mortgage), Spectrum Careers, Hewlett Packard (in Australia), Tower Watson’s, Ultra, Specialisterne, Vodafone, Spectrum Careers, and Zenith Optimedia (data technology) are known to offer jobs.
Badger Mountain Orchard and Vineyard out of Washington State has made changes to their hiring process to employ and retain satisfied individuals with autism.
There are smaller autism focused businesses such as the Rising Tide Carwash (FL), Ultranauts (engineering firm in NYC), Spectrum Designs (apparel company based in Long Island NY) and SMILE Biscotti (locations in TX and AZ) that focus on maintain a large employee base with autism.
Interestingly, there is a special intelligence unit in the Israeli army that full of individuals on the autism spectrum. This group reviews satellite images to search for security threats to troops on the ground.
In Australia, the Department of Defense collaborates with Specialisterne and Hewlett Packard Enterprise to form the DXC Dandelion program to facilitate careers for individuals with autism in information technology.
Across our country, there are several niche programs for individuals with autism that involve training and development for job readiness.
It is startling to think about the unemployment numbers and related issues for individuals with autism in our country.
Sometimes, the interview process itself can be a significant barrier to meaningful employment. It is recommended that individuals develop a portfolio to display some of their strengths and talents to show a potential employer. It can be helpful to disclose an autism diagnosis to an employer early on in the process, as some companies have started multi-phase hiring processes that involve pairing new hires with a peer mentor as a job coach.
When searching for a potential employer for an individual with autism, consider the physical space of work environment. Many companies can make accommodations – having a work station/desk in a quieter area of the office space, permitting noise reducing headphones, softer light sources, wearing hat/glasses or even a standing desk. Corporate diversity programs around autism awareness is beneficial for everyone. Peer mentor programs can lead to success for all parties involved.
The numbers reported and issues around gaining and maintaining meaningful employment are unsettling. They point to the need for services in young adults, and continuity as they transition out of high school. This developmental difference is life-long for individuals with autism, and preparation for adulthood needs to start early. Autistic adults can be highly sought by a potential employer.
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