I truly believe that my autism is both a challenge and a strength in my life particularly, the issue of being able to earn a living. Unemployment rates are frankly high for people in general, but studies in the US show it is greatly higher for those with autism. For example, the organization Easter Seals reported in a 2008 study that 22 % of people with autism over the age of 16 have a paying job, compared to 75% of people who don’t have autism, as reported by parents. (Easter Seals, 2008). There are as well, many people with autism who are unemployed or underemployed. I am using the opportunity of the International Day for Persons with Disabilities to explain to you a little bit about autism, some of the challenges we face in getting jobs and some solutions that are currently being tried.
According to diagnostic criteria, autism is characterized by impairments in communication, social interaction, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. These restrictive behaviors can also be a sign of a passion or skill that can lead to job opportunities.
Autism is considered a spectrum disorder, and like the spectrum of colors in a rainbow, all individuals with autism are different, although we share the same label. We like to say in the autism community “when you have met one autistic person, you have met ONE autistic person.” This truth is that our differences is what makes it difficult for employers, employment agencies, and job coaches to realize our capabilities and to offer specific recommendations based on our shared label. Belief in the ability of each person is necessary because judging us by neurotypical (ie “normal”) standards is not a real measure of our capacity for learning and being able to earn a living.
Someone like me with little speech, who greatly needs assistive technology (i.e. an iPad with a voice output app), and has motor movement differences, is considered to be on the less functioning end of the spectrum. My communication skills are truly different from a person on the more able end of the spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). He/she who has AS may have verbal skills but truly has other challenges in communicating. On the job, the person with AS may be better at doing his/her work, but the lack of social connection (i.e. no interest in chit chat) means they are less connected and less liked than their neurotypical colleagues. Frankly, this is why they are often passed over for promotions, or can be the first to be let go when they need to lay people off.
Most individuals with autism have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) to one degree or another, which frankly, can impact their ability in certain employment situations. SPD is a neurological disorder that causes difficulties with processing information from the five senses: vision, auditory, touch, olfaction, and taste, as well as from the sense of movement (vestibular system), and/or the positional sense (proprioception). People with autism may at first be nervous in new environments because they can be intimidated by new smells, new lights, and new sounds that their processing systems feel are painful. Many get bothered by voices and sounds that are unfamiliar. A person may be very sensitive to touch to the point where it is painful. Frankly over time we can become accustomed to different environments, and honestly, there are simple accommodations that can be made that frankly make employment possible.
There are four areas to consider when looking at ways to decrease the unemployment rate for those on the autism spectrum: first, people with autism need to be taught life skills and work skills earlier in life. Necessary life skills frankly include self regulation, self advocacy, social interaction, executive functioning (organizing, planning). Work skills include task completion, self regulation, and social skills to allow us to successfully interview for and keep a job. People with autism have the barrier of not knowing certain life skills that neurotypicals learn just by living. I know the schools, the transition programs and colleges in the United States are working harder on this than before and organizations such as the Autistic Global Initiative, a project of the Autism Research Institute, are developing curriculum to be made available online.
Secondly, employers need to become aware of the skills that individuals with autism have that could benefit their company, and realize that accommodations can be made to allow an autistic person to be successful. Thorkil Sonne, the founder of Specialisterne, a Danish company with operations now in other countries, is frankly a good example of this. Sonne founded Specialisterne after his child was diagnosed with autism. Specialisterne operations around the world are frankly socially innovative companies using the characteristics of individuals with autism as a competitive advantage, helping people on the spectrum get employed. Many with autism work as consultants on tasks such as programming, software testing, and data-entry for corporations.
Thirdly, it is extremely important for government agencies such as the Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies to be better at assessing those with autism and to adequately match them to better jobs. Among the challenges that people with autism face include the inability of those working at the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to understand the challenges and the strengths of those who autism. According to James Emmett, an expert in the field of disability and employment, the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation was originally designed for people with physical disabilities like blindness or those in wheelchairs. This is why they seem to be having a difficult time helping people with autism become employed. For example, one state Voc Rehab agency reported that of eligible clients that counselors had sent for vocational evaluation, more than 90% withdrew from VR services before finishing the evaluation. (Standifer,2009). Frankly there is a great free online resource Adult Autism & Employment: A Guide for Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals, by Scott Standifer that all government agencies should kindly read to be more successful with job matching.
Fourth, job coaches really need to be trained in ways of coaching an autistic person while putting accommodations into place, so that the employee with autism can be successful. There are many people who can work with the right support. Frankly there is a great deficit of trained job coaches to support those with autism in the United States, but this is improving as more knowledge on autism is spread.
As we mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities my appeal to you is to kindly help people with autism to get and keep jobs and be financially productive as this is so necessary in these economic times when governments everywhere are having difficulties with their budgets. Many non-profit organizations, employers and government agencies have been working together recently to create successful training materials, projects and employment models. We thank them as this is a great start and hope for more by the next anniversary date.
Youth Representative for the Autism Research Institute