Because of their attention to detail, ability to concentrate, and creative thinking skills, people with autism make valuable employees. They excel at completing repetitive tasks and doing research, and typically stick with a job once they’re hired. However, some employers are hesitant to hire (or even interview) job candidates who have autism.
In this blog, we’ll explore why adults with autism struggle to find employment and how employers can support employees who have autism. Let’s begin by defining autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and what it looks like.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Autism Speaks defines autism spectrum disorder as “a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.” There are a variety of subtypes of autism, and each person has their own set of challenges and strengths.
Autism can be diagnosed when a child is as young as 18 months, and symptoms typically appear by age 2-3. While early intervention can lead to positive outcomes later on, autism is typically a lifelong condition.
Why Do Adults with Autism Struggle to Find Employment?
Adults with autism are less likely than other disability groups to find employment after graduation. Studies show that as many as 90% of adults with autism are either underemployed or unemployed. Many employers don’t fully understand ASD and aren’t aware of the benefits employees with autism can bring to their company.
Here are a few reasons why adults with autism often have trouble finding meaningful, long-term employment.
People with Autism May Lack “Soft Skills”
Many individuals with autism lack soft skills, which include things like:
- People skills
- Social skills
- Communication skills
- Emotional intelligence
- Social graces
- Time management skills
Because they don’t have some or all of these soft skills, adults with autism can be overlooked during job interviews. Employers may not understand the underlying issues behind the person’s lack of soft skills, and instead write them off as uncaring or disrespectful.
People with Autism Struggle with Social Interaction
Adults with autism often struggle to read social cues, which can cause them to come across as inappropriate during conversations. And because they may have difficulty processing their own feelings, people with autism may be unaware of the emotions of the people around them. All of this has the potential to offend other employees, leading them to form a negative opinion of the person with autism.
People with Autism Struggle with Social Communication
Because they have trouble understanding the complexities of social interactions, people with autism may take statements very literally, which can cause problems. They might also struggle to figure out when it’s their turn to talk or listen during a conversation. As a result, they might speak for an excessive period of time or seem disinterested in what other people are saying.
People with Autism Struggle with Social Imagination
In many cases, adults with autism are very uncomfortable with change. Consequently, they might struggle with planning ahead or preparing themselves for the uncertainties of the future. These traits can alienate them from potential employers during job interviews if they’re asked about time management and how they handle change.
What Are the Types of Employment for Adults with Autism?
There are three main types of employment for adults with autism: competitive, supported, and secure/sheltered. Here’s a quick overview of each type and how it handles autism in the workplace:
- Competitive employment is where the employee is completely independent in the work environment. They can ask their employer for reasonable accommodations and/or a position that requires limited social interactions.
- Supported employment is where the employee has a support system in place. They might have a job that’s developed just for them and their strengths.
- Secure/sheltered employment typically occurs in a facility-based setting. The employee receives behavior training and is taught a variety of work skills.
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How Can Employers Support Employees with Autism?
There are a wide variety of ways that businesses can support their employees with autism. For starters, employers must have a comprehensive understanding of what autism is and what it looks like in the workplace. Companies also have to learn how to manage and reasonably accommodate employees with autism. They also need to ensure other employees know how to work with someone with autism.
When interviewing someone with autism, employers should focus on whether the individual is capable of doing the job. Managers should pay attention to the person’s abilities, rather than any perceived limitations due to their autism.
Here are a few helpful tips that employers can follow when supporting employees who have autism.
Provide Clear Directions
It’s important to provide employees with autism with clear, succinct directions and guidelines for performing their job. Employers should thoroughly explain what’s expected of them and also explain the unwritten rules of the office. It can be helpful to provide written instructions for employees with autism so they have something to reference later if necessary.
Bring in Outside Support
There are a variety of autism employment support services available for employees and their employers. Most states have vocational services for people with disabilities that can make the process of finding and maintaining a job much easier. These services include providing on-site job coaches who can mentor and monitor the employee. Job coaches can also provide ancillary employment support, such as finding transportation if the person doesn’t drive.
Provide Reasonable Accommodations
One of the best ways employers can support employees with autism is by providing reasonable accommodations. These include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
- Providing noise-reducing headphones if noise sensitivity is an issue.
- Turning off or dimming overhead lights if light sensitivity is an issue.
- Avoiding eye contact if this makes the person with autism uncomfortable.
- Respecting personal space and using verbal praise to show kindness, instead of touch.
- Holding one-to-one meetings with the person to reduce social clutter and distraction.
- Allowing the individual to follow their own regimented schedule to reduce their anxiety.
- Providing information about changes in tasks or the workplace well in advance.
Educate and Train Other Employees
In many cases, other employees may not understand how to interact with people with autism. That’s why education and training is so important. The employee’s colleagues should understand that the person with autism isn’t trying to be rude and that there are genuine needs behind their reasonable accommodations.
Sensitivity training can help the entire team understand how to work together and deal with potential miscommunications. Employers can also create a training document for other staff that explains how they can best support and work with the person with autism.
Designate a Mentor or Buddy
It can be very helpful for a person with autism to have a mentor in the office they can go to if they’re anxious, confused, or stressed. The mentor should have special training in working with people with autism so they know how to help and support their coworker.
Provide Consistent, Constructive Feedback
Consistent performance evaluations are key to the improvement and success of any employee. However, they’re especially important for people with autism. Employers should hold frequent, short reviews where they provide kind (but direct) feedback on how the individual is doing.
It’s important to thoroughly explain what the person with autism is doing wrong, ensure they understand the problem, and direct them on how to improve. Above all, employers should highlight the person’s knowledge and skill set and treat them as an asset to grow and retain, just like any other employee.
The UDS Employment Services program helps individuals with disabilities, including Autism, find work in the community. They also work with employers to help them better understand how employing people with disabilities can benefit their organization. In addition, the UDS Care Management team assists individuals who are part of the Pennsylvania Adult Autism Waiver in developing an individualized care management plan, including supportive employment.