What Can We Do to Address Unemployment in the Autistic Community

By Ronit Molko

Over the next decade, an estimated 500,000 teenagers with autism will enter adulthood, and potentially, the workforce. Many of these young adults will begin the job hunt, hoping to find work that can help them establish independence and gain more independence and personal fulfillment. But, unemployment remains a significant problem.

Unfortunately, as things stand now, more than half of young adults with autism are unemployed or unenrolled in higher education. Of autistic adults who graduated from college, 85% are unemployed. Comparatively, the national unemployment rate is 3.7%.

Furthermore, though nearly 18,000 individuals with autism use state-funded vocational rehabilitation (VR) programs, in 2014 only 60% left the program with a job. Of that group, 80% worked only part-time for a median weekly rate of $160.00.

Clearly, there is room for improvement. So, what needs done?

For Employers:

There are many great companies that have inclusive programs supporting a neurodiverse workforce, like SAP, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Ford, and Ernest & Young. Other companies actively recruit individuals who are on the autism spectrum, recognizing the unique talents and skillsets they can bring to the table. Right now, there are over 50 companies that rely on the work of employees who are on the spectrum. I wrote about one of these companies, Rising Tide Car Wash, in a previous blog post about supporting neurodiversity in the workplace.

These companies are setting a great example, but they are still the exception when it comes to inclusion for autistic individuals.

Here are a few areas of focus that can move these hiring and retention practices for autistic individuals from exception to the norm:

# Recontextualize your interview process. For many individuals with autism, the interpersonal experience of an interview can be difficult. A traditional interview process, involving direct conversation, maintaining eye contact and reading social cues will be more challenging for most individuals on the spectrum. Therefore, many of these unspoken qualifiers like maintaining eye contact should be considered differently when weighing the fit for the job. In addition, it may be more difficult for autistic individuals to easily and clearly articulate what they know and what they can do for the company. Instead, give them an opportunity to show you what they are capable of and be patient. As the employer, approaching these interviews creatively, with an understanding of the individual is one of the most inclusive things you can do.

# Beware of sensory overload. Loud, open office spaces might not be the ideal working environment for autistic individuals who experience sensory overload. When bringing on a new team member, make sure you’ve already discussed this potential issue. If it’s a problem for that individual, be ready with solutions. Designate a quiet place in the office where that person can go to work in peace or provide noise-canceling headphones. Provide accommodations such as noise-canceling headphones or adjustment in the lighting to ease overstimulation. And communicate with other team members exactly what’s going on and why so that there is no resentment or misunderstanding.

# Focus on retention. It may be easy for leadership and team members to misinterpret certain behavioral traits of an autistic individual. It’s important that these misunderstandings don’t result in termination, as often times the person will mean no offense by their words or actions. Being aware of what’s really going on, and then communicating deliberately to course-correct and hopefully prevent later incidents should be the first consideration for employers who are serious about autistic inclusivity.

There are certainly a host of other issues to consider when implementing a more neurodiverse plan at work, and if you have further questions, an expert consultant could provide more insight.

In the Autism Services Industry:

The autism services industry does a lot of good work helping children learn important skills. But an area for advancement is giving teenagers the skills they need to be successful in jobs.

Here are a few places to start:

# Identifying strengths and job matching. Essentially it comes down to the fact that employees are more likely to have success in their job if their skill set lines up with the requirements. Finding that fit starts with identifying the individual’s strengths and passions, and what skills make them standout candidates. For example, some individuals with autism thrive when executing tasks that require repetition and routines, making them strong candidates for assembly line, data entry, or other computer work. The range of skills autistic individuals can possess is as varied as the individuals themselves. Providers should be sure to involve them in the process of career pathing and job matching. The better we get at identifying talents and skills and matching them with an appropriate position, the closer we’ll be to solving the problem of workplace inclusivity.

# Expanding coverage and access to services based on region. Services often vary across state boundaries. For example, Alabama saw 79% of individuals with autism find a job after vocational rehabilitation (VR), compared to 29% in New Mexico. Addressing these gaps and working together to create uniform VR protocols will help increase the number of autistic individuals placed in jobs that are strong fits for their skill sets. With the help of activist providers and investors, this change could be within reach and hugely impactful.
Finding, securing, and holding a job can bring a new sense of independence and fulfillment to the lives of autistic adults. If employers engage with inclusivity in good faith and providers are able to prepare autistic individuals with the skills they need to succeed, solving the problem for underserved autistic adults could be closer than we think, even if we still have a long way to go.

Looking for more ideas? Check out my bookAutism Matters.