In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month this year and to take a break from the exhausting COVID-19 Pandemic, we will be taking Tuesdays to regenerate the #Hire Autistic Adults Series. This week we will have 10 things to know about Employment as it relates to autism.
10 Things to Know About Autism and Employment
Planning and Resources for Success
It can be difficult for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to find regular, paid employment. However, increasing numbers of employers are open to hiring adults with disabilities, including those with ASD.
That said, if you’re an adult with ASD (or parenting one) and about to embark on a job hunt, be aware that you may have to jump through more hoops and pass more tests and evaluations than neurotypical job candidates. Here are 10 things to know to help you understand the challenges you may face and where to turn for support.
1. Most Autistic Adults Are Underemployed
Fewer than half of autistic adults are employed.1 Of those, many have only part-time jobs or are doing work for which they’re overqualified. Quite a few work as volunteers or in programs outside the mainstream. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Expectations for disabled adults are low; few schools or families expect autistic children to find satisfying careers (unless they happen to have extraordinary skills), which can quash self-confidence.
- In order to get a job in the general community, people with autism must compete for positions, which can be difficult for those with compromised social communication skills that can hamper their performance in job interviews and make it difficult to engage successfully with co-workers. Some autistic adults may find it hard to manage the physical requirements of the workplace as well.
- Most workplace programs developed for adults with disabilities were not developed with autism in mind, but rather for people with intellectual or physical disabilities.
2. School Services End at Age 22
The moment a person with a disability turns 22, they’re no longer covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). School is an entitlement, meaning schools are required to provide a free and appropriate education. Adult services, however, are not entitlements. You may or may not qualify for services and, even if you are qualified, the service providers may or may not be funded.
In practice, however, anyone with a significant disability (and autism qualifies as a significant disability) will qualify for and receive at least some adult services. To make this happen, though, you’ll need to know how the transition works in your community, what options are available in your state, and how to qualify for the services you may need.
3. Transition-to-Adulthood Programs for Autism Are in Infancy
Until quite recently, adults with an autism diagnosis were rare; only those adults with low-functioning autism were likely to be diagnosed at all. Schools were set up to provide severely-disabled students with life-skills training and help with basic work skills, knowing that those students (if they were lucky) would wind up employed in part-time jobs requiring few skills.
As the population of adults diagnosed with autism grows, resources and programs are becoming available for those entering adulthood.2 Adults with autism have different needs; some have no intellectual disability, for example, but are coping with severe anxiety. Others may have amazing technical skills but serious sensory challenges.
Schools are mandated to provide appropriate transition programs for autistic students, but not all schools are ready or able to do so.3 As a result, it’s often the parents who do the research, find the resources, and provide direction to the schools. Alternatively, some parents just circumvent the schools altogether and use their own resources and networks to support their adult child.
4. Adult Services Vary by Location
While the IDEA law is federally mandated, adult services to individuals with disabilities (with the exception of a few programs such as Social Security) are not. Most adult programs and services are paid for and managed by the state, with some programs available only on a local level. Some states are more generous with their funding than others, some have more disability-friendly employers than others, and so forth.
According to a survey conducted by the non-profit organization Autism Speaks, the metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Boston are among the 10 best places in America to live for people who have autism.4 Survey respondents in these areas were happy with the services and programs their cities provide, including educational services and flexible employer policies.
5. Agencies Are Just Beginning to Understand Autism
Most state and federal agencies are just beginning to understand what it means to work with autisitic adults. As with schools, they are accustomed to finding appropriate jobs and support for people with intellectual or physical disabilities. Autism is neither. While agencies are doing their best to catch up with the needs of a fast-growing group of adults with both great abilities and great challenges, they’re also struggling with bureaucracy and funding issues. As is often the case, it is sometimes up to parents and self-advocates to provide information, websites, and legal information to keep agencies up to date.
6. You Can and Should Tap Into Informational and Advocacy Resources
There are a number of organizations that make it their business to inform people who ask about services. The challenge, of course, is to ask the right questions of the right people at the right time. Depending on where you’re located, you can read publications, speak to advisors, attend conferences, or tap into webinars presented by such organizations as:
- The ARC
- Easter Seals
- Autism Speaks
- Autism Society
- Autism Asperger’s Society of New England
- Blogs, Groups and Pages
Armed with the information about what’s available, you can start to put your ducks in a row so you’re ready for the transition when they turn 22.
7. Autism Employment Choices Should Be Self-Directed
Some autistic adults know exactly what kind of work they want. Others are flexible, and others have no idea. But just like everyone else, adults with autism have both the responsibility and the right to direct their own lives. Even if a person has limited verbal skills, it’s important to know that the work they are doing suits their interests, abilities, and sense of purpose.
To help determine an individual’s best career choices, school counselors and agency personnel can use tools such as vocational and aptitude tests. A student’s vision is then made part of the transition plan which, in turn, makes it easier to plan for training, internships, and vocational opportunities.
8. Job Options Depend on Abilities and Challenges
One of the hardest realities to face as the parent of a child with autism or an autistic self-advocate is that abilities are not always enough to get and keep a good job. A young adult with autism may be a brilliant mathematician, but if they can’t generalize their skills to a needed function, such as accounting or statistics, there may be no job available. Other issues that can be serious obstacles to employment include:
- Social anxiety
- Severe sensory challenges
- Difficulty with handling criticism
- Unwillingness to share or collaborate
Oddly enough, it can sometimes be easier to find a job placement for a nonverbal person with few sensory issues than for a talented techie who can’t handle an office environment.
Understanding strengths and challenges are important to the transition and job search process. If you know what issues are likely to be a problem, you can advocate for training, internships, and “job carving” to create the right job match.
9. There Are More New Job Opportunities Than Ever Before
Many large corporations have begun to see the value of hiring employees on the autism spectrum. The accounting firm Ernst & Young, for example, has a neurodiversity program that reaches out to autistic adults who have the math skills and focus others may lack. Other companies with autism-specific outreach programs include SAP and Ford.
In addition, quite a few smaller companies are building their business around autistic strengths and abilities. Rising Tide is a carwash company in Florida that has attracted a lot of attention for its autism focus, but it’s by no means alone.
It’s worthwhile keeping an eye on autism employment news, as opportunities are popping up all the time.5
10. It’s Important to Prepare for Success
While it’s great to imagine a young adult with autism getting a great job and keeping it for a lifetime, it’s rare to see that kind of success without a great deal of preparation and support. It’s possible to set your child (or yourself) up for success, but it takes planning and work. Usually the planning:
- Involves at least one if not more disability-focused agencies
- Requires the active engagement of the employer (and sometimes involves an employer-managed training or internship program)
- Includes training and practice on the part of the employee
- Includes job coaching and some form of mentorship for at least some period of time
- Requires ongoing evaluation, troubleshooting, and problem-solving