10 Things You Need to Know About Autism and Employment

Planning and Resources for Success

Historically, it has been very tough for people with autism to find regular, paid employment. While that's still the case to some degree, times are changing for the better. More companies seeing the benefits of hiring adults with disabilities. Even more exciting, certain companies and industries are also discovering the benefits of autism employment.

While there is certainly room for optimism, however, the road to success is loaded with potential pitfalls. In order to score a job, an adult with autism must jump through more hoops and pass more tests and evaluations than most employees. What's more, the symptoms of autism can become serious problems in many work-related situations.

To make the most of your opportunities while avoiding possible pitfalls, it's important to plan ahead, understand your options, and know where to turn for more information.

1
Most Autistic Adults Are Underemployed

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Less than half of adults with autism are employed. Even those who have jobs are often working only part-time, or doing work for which they are overqualified. Quite a few work as volunteers or in programs outside the mainstream. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • People with autism often have symptoms that get in the way of successful interviewing, managing the physical requirements of the workplace, or engaging successfully with work teams.
  • Expectations for "disabled" adults are low; few schools and families expect their children with autism to find satisfying careers (unless they happen to have extraordinary skills, which is relatively rare).
  • Programs developed for adults with disabilities were not developed with autism in mind. Most were, in fact, developed for people with intellectual disabilities, or for people with physical challenges such as cerebral palsy or blindness.
  • In order to get a job in the general community, people with autism must compete for positions, and that can be difficult for individuals whose social communication skills are compromised.

2
School Services End at Age 22

The moment that a person with a disability turns 22, he is no longer covered under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). School is an entitlement, meaning that schools are required to provide a free and appropriate education. Adult services, however, are not "entitlements." Your child may or may not qualify for services and, even if she is qualified, the service providers may or may not be funded. 

This all sounds a lot worse than it is. In practice, 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 transition works in your community, what options are available in your state, and how to qualify your child for the services he may need.

3
Transition-to-Adulthood Programs for Autism Are in Infancy

Until quite recently, adults with autism were rare. Those adults who were diagnosed with autism had a severe disability. Schools were set up to provide students with severe disabilities with life skills training and help with basic work skills, knowing that those students (if they were lucky) would wind up employed in very part-time jobs requiring few skills.

It's only in the last few years that a large cohort of people with autism has needed a completely different type of transition-to-adulthood program. Some adults 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. 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. 

DisabilityScoop, a website dedicated to disability news, says that in 2017 "Arizona claimed the number one slot in the ranking for the third year in a row. Also rounding out the 10 best on this year’s list are Michigan, Hawaii, Georgia, New York, South Carolina, Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Missouri. ... The report flags Arkansas, Illinois, Texas, and Mississippi — which ranked last for the eighth year in a row — for repeatedly coming in at or near the bottom of the list."

5
Agencies Are Just Beginning to Understand Autism

Most state and federal agencies are just beginning to understand what it means to work with adults with autism. As with schools, they are accustomed to finding appropriate jobs and supports 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

How do parents become so well-educated about programs, agencies, funding, and resources? There are a number of organizations who make it their business to inform parents who ask. Your 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:

Armed with the information about what's available, you can start to put your ducks in a row so that your child is ready for transition when he turns 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 he is doing suits his 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 tests, LifeMapping, and aptitude tests. A student 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 he can't generalize his 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
  • inflexibility
  • 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 is 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 and Young, for example, has a neurodiversity program that reaches out to autistic adults who have the math skills and focus so many others 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. Often, parents of autistic adults create opportunities for their children and then expand.

It's worthwhile keeping an eye on autism employment news, as opportunities are popping up all the time. 

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
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