Autism Complicates the Path to Employment

Employment history and various job searches demonstrate how difficult it has been for me to locate and retain employment.

In September, Slate carried the following article by Sarah Carr, using "Leigh" as an example of the hurdles facing autistic adults.
The Tricky Path to Employment Is Trickier When You're Autistic
Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults. Our society doesn't give them the support they need.
By Sarah Carr

Leigh epitomizes the underemployed. The 39-year-old has a master's degree in library science from a top-ranked school, years of experience working the circulation desk in a Boston library, and an IQ of 145. He is reliable and considerate, and he works hard.

Yet for the past eight years, since he lost his salaried Boston library job due to austerity measures, the only permanent job Leigh has landed is at the T.J. Maxx near his mother's home on Cape Cod. He works part time dusting, vacuuming, and washing the mirrors, and he is paid the minimum wage, $11 an hour. Over the past few years, Leigh has applied for dozens of library positions. Every one has turned him down, most without an interview.
First, permit me the obvious: Leigh selected his career badly. That's not uncommon among either the gifted or those with autistic traits. The focus on a narrow field, regardless of the consequences poses a problem. In my case, degree majors and career were also a misguided attempted to shift away from technology. Practicality isn't a strong suit for some of us.

I'm almost ten years older than Leigh, with an MA, MFA, and broad-based PhD. My IQ (at least on a good test day) is, according to some research, an impediment to social and career success. My work history is… problematic. I've worked for less than $10/hr within the last two years, simply trying to earn some money and maintain my self-respect.

Intelligence is not a gift that ensures or even contributes to success. Research suggests the most successful politicians, entrepreneurs, and managers have IQs in the high-average to low-gifted range, generally below 135 yet above 115. It's a narrow range and it seems to hold across cultures, political systems, and economic models. Basically, you can be too smart for your own good, at least as intelligence is measured by testing instruments (pattern recognition, recall, vocabulary).

When I've addressed issues of intelligence and stigma, people have accused me of the dreaded "humble-brag" without appreciating how truly horrible it is to be unable to connect to people no matter how hard you try. It's not great. It isn't wonderful. I don't feel "superior" to anyone, I feel… alone. Smart enough to know people dislike being around me, smart enough to know I am the problem — and have no easy way to change.

With enough bad experiences, you start to distrust and dislike people. You fear social situations, including workplaces. You spend time alone, and attempt to find jobs that minimize interactions. Isolation begets more isolation. How is that healthy or good?

In the end, hyper-focused autistics have a lot of disabilities regardless of abilities to perform some tasks. By definition autism is an impairment of social skills and interpersonal connections. It is a disability that leads to other disabilities or is co-morbid with others, and often these are mental health disabilities that further isolate the autistic.

Employment? It always feels like a long-shot, since it means navigating interviews with people and then working alongside other people. It's worse if I have to interact a lot interpersonally with people in a way that isn't task or information-centric.

The statistics bear out the employment challenges.
Autistic adults may very well be the most disadvantaged disability group in the American workplace. Only 14 percent of adults with autism held paid jobs in their communities, according to one May report from Drexel University's Autism Institute (the report looked just at those who had received state developmental disabilities services). Yet a pathetic 2 percent of all autism research funding goes to understanding adulthood and aging, according to a 2017 report from the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, based on 2015 numbers. While most research is focused on figuring out how to prevent or treat autism disorders when they are first diagnosed at young ages, we also have to remember that this work has not yet materialized as a solution for the more than 3.5 million Americans living with autism. "It's only in the last 10 to 15 years that there's been growing recognition of the fact that children grow up to be adults," says Susan Daniels, executive secretary of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. As Leigh's story demonstrates, autistic adults have their own needs—needs that we as a society are just figuring out how to fill.
Consider that an estimated third of autistics have talents at or above average levels and yet only 14 percent have paid jobs. Those might not be full-time jobs and many are well below the abilities of the autistic person.

You might assume this is simply a problem for all disabled individuals, but for autistics this lack of employment is a more pronounced challenge.
Employment rates for autistic adults are abysmal in both absolute and relative terms—they're lower than those for just about any other disability type studied. Drexel's Autism Institute found that 58 percent of young adults on the spectrum worked at some point in the years after high school, compared with 74 percent of those with an intellectual disability and 91 percent of those with an emotional disturbance. "People with autism tend to flounder more," said Anne Roux, a research scientist at the Autism Institute who worked on the study.

Some employers and social service agencies have started trying to make inroads on the problem. A couple major businesses like Microsoft and PetSmart have prioritized hiring and supporting autistic employees. Microsoft, for instance, did away with its traditional interview process for applicants on the spectrum, instead inviting them to come and spend several days on site so they could be observed while working on projects.
It is good that Microsoft realizes that interviews and other artificial situations confound autistics. It's also insufficient. But, at least it is a step in the right direction. Interviews always favor the more charming candidates, period.

Once hired, then what will help the autistic? That's a question facing employment experts and counselors.
The biggest hurdle in many instances seems to be helping them get to the point of being employees. That might require changing interview processes, where autistic individuals typically flounder—perhaps by allowing a counselor to sit in, ensuring that someone familiar with autism conducts the interview, or adopting Microsoft's "interview-less" approach. Julie Urda, [a] counselor at Cape Abilities, says people on the spectrum typically "don't get nuance or body language or social convention," yet interviewers often rigidly assess them on those traits.

Workers who are autistic often require at least some minimal level of ongoing job support, a person who can serve as intermediary if conflicts or confusion arise over their role or conduct.
If the only job is a lousy job, I will take it. But will I last long at a job that is well below my skill level? Can I tolerate boredom? Probably not. Like anyone else, I want to use my mind and apply my skills to something productive.
We also don't know how severity of the disorder impacts employment prospects. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the highest-functioning people on the spectrum can be particularly hard to place in jobs since they can, and want to, do more ambitious work than the menial roles so often assigned disabled workers in the American economy. Yet routine interactions rarely come easily, even for the most verbal of them.
The Slate article concludes that we need to know more about autism and employment, yet that's not where research funding is directed. Autistic adults aren't like children — they aren't as marketable for non-profits. People want to cure autism or help autistic children change. Helping adults? That's not easy and not an easy fundraising pitch.
First, too little attention has been paid to the employment needs of those with mild disabilities, as a disproportionate share of the assistance, support, and set-asides (understandably) target those with the most severe needs. We shouldn't stop supporting employees with the most intense challenges, but we need to be much more willing to make accommodations and develop new programs for less disabled workers… rather than expecting them to seamlessly "blend in" or relegating them to narrow career tracks.

Beyond that, change requires not only greater awareness but concrete alterations to the hiring and employee-support processes. More employers need to figure out a way to understand the skills of people with autism. Microsoft's model, developing a distinct interview process for applicants on the spectrum, is a good start. As the numbers of Americans with autism spectrum disorders continues to rise, it's not just a matter of social justice but of national economic health. And, in Leigh's case, we're failing to make use of a unique and elegant mind that continues, more than 20 years later, to enrich the few people who have gotten to know him well, a mind that has much to offer the lives—and, hopefully, workplaces—of most anyone who gives him a chance.
After nearly 50 years, I'm not going to change. I've tried everything imaginable to change who I am, without success. What I want is a chance to do something that contributes to society. The search for a career has been exhausting.

If you happen to know of any good job leads, let me know.


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