10 Things to Know About Autism and Employment

Challenges and Ways to Overcome Them

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is considered a disability by many employers. Still, autistic adults can have a hard time finding regular, paying jobs.

However, with an increasing number of employers becoming open to hiring disabled employees, autistic adults are starting to have more options.

If you’re an autistic adult (or you’re parenting one) be prepared that there might be more hoops to jump through and tests to pass in the job search process for you than a neurotypical candidate would encounter.

Here are 10 things that will help you understand the challenges you may face as an autistic adult who is looking for a job where you can turn for support throughout the process.

autistic employee
1

Most Autistic Adults Are Underemployed

Fewer than half of autistic adults are employed. Of those, many have only part-time jobs or are doing work for which they’re overqualified.

There are also many autistic people working as volunteers or in programs outside the mainstream.

Here are a few key reasons why autistic adults end up in these positions:

  • Low expectations: Few schools—and sometimes even families—expect autistic children to find satisfying careers. The exception is if they happen to have extraordinary skills. However, the lowered expectations for most autistic children can be destructive to their self-confidence.
  • Competition and challenges: To get a job in the general community, autistic people have to compete for positions. That can be hard for people with compromised social communication skills. These challenges can hamper their performance in job interviews and make it hard for them to engage successfully with co-workers. Some autistic adults also find it hard to manage the physical requirements of the workplace, especially if they have sensitivities to light, sound, and other stimuli that they might not have any control over in these settings.
  • Lack of programs: Most workplace programs for disabled adults were not developed with autism in mind. Rather, they were intended to work for people with intellectual or physical disabilities.
2

School Services End at Age 22

The moment a disabled person turns 22, they’re no longer covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). School is an entitlement, which means that schools are required to provide free and appropriate education.

Adult services, however, are not entitlements. You may or may not qualify for services as an autistic adult. Even if you are qualified, the service providers may or may not be funded.

However, 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, 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 Are Few

Until quite recently, having an autism diagnosis as an adult was rare. For a long time, only autistic people with the most need for support were diagnosed.

Schools were set up to provide severely-disabled students with life-skills training and help them with basic work skills. It was anticipated that these students would wind up employed in part-time jobs that required few skills—if they were lucky.

As the population of adults diagnosed with autism has grown, more resources and programs are becoming available for them as they enter adulthood.

That said, autistic adults have different needs at school and, eventually, in the workplace.

For example, some autistic people do not have intellectual disabilities, but they do have severe anxiety. Others have impressive technical skills but must work with their sensory challenges.

Schools are mandated to provide appropriate transition programs for autistic students, but not all schools are ready or able to do so.

Parents are often the ones doing research, finding resources, and providing direction to schools.

Some parents have the ability to circumvent the schools altogether and use their own resources and networks to support their adult children.

4

Adult Services Vary by Location

The IDEA law is federally mandated, but adult services to disabled people (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. Some programs are available only on a local level.

What states offer varies considerably. For example, some states are more generous with their funding than others and some have more disability-friendly employers than others.

According to research from Stanford University, autistic people in the United States live an average of 22 miles from a diagnostic center and about 11 miles from the closest autism resource (for example, education and employment).

Cities on the coasts like Boston, Washington D.C. in the east, and Chicago and Los Angeles in the west, had the most resources for autistic people.

Relative to their populations, West Virginia, Kentucky and Maine had the fewest resources, and Montana, Connecticut, Colorado, and Rhode Island had the most.

5

Agencies Are Just Starting to Understand Autism

Most state and federal agencies are only starting to understand what it means to support autistic adults.

Like schools, these agencies are used to finding appropriate jobs and support for people with intellectual or physical disabilities—which doesn’t necessarily apply to autistic people.

While agencies are doing their best to catch up with the needs of a fast-growing group of autistic adults, they’re also struggling with bureaucracy and funding limitations.

As is often the case, it’s sometimes up to parents and autistic self-advocates to provide information, websites, and legal information to keep the agencies up to date.

6

Tap Into Informational and Advocacy Resources

There are a number of organizations that make it their business to inform people who ask about services for autistic individuals. The challenge 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:

Information from trusted resources can help you prepare for the transition to adulthood, including what to expect during the job search process.

7

Employment Choices Should Be Self-Directed

Some autistic adults know exactly what kind of work they want (or don’t want), while others have no idea what kind of job they’d like to have.

Just like everyone else, autistic adults have the responsibility and the right to direct their own lives.

Even if a person has limited verbal skills, they still need to know that the work they are doing matches their interests and abilities, and gives them a sense of purpose. 

School counselors and agency personnel can use tools such as vocational and aptitude tests to help autistic people figure out which career path would be a good fit for them.

An autistic person’s vision can then be made part of their transition plan. That 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 an autistic self-advocate or the parent of an autistic child is that their abilities are not always enough to get—and keep—a good job.

For example, a young autistic adult could be a brilliant mathematician, but if they can’t generalize their skills to a needed function—such as accounting or statistics—there might not be a job for them.

Other issues that can be serious obstacles to employment for autistic adults include:

  • Social anxiety
  • Severe sensory challenges
  • Inflexibility
  • Difficulty with handling criticism
  • Unwillingness to share or collaborate

Autistic adults need to understand—and accept the best they can—their strengths and challenges in the workplace.

Once these factors have been identified, a person can advocate for training, internships, and “job carving” to help them find the best-fit job.

9

New Job Opportunities Coming

Many large corporations have started to see the value of hiring employees on the autism spectrum.

For example, the accounting firm Ernst & Young has a neurodiversity program that reaches out to autistic adults who have the math skills and focus that many neurotypical people lack.

Other companies with autism-friendly outreach programs include SAP and Ford

In addition, a number of smaller companies are building their business around the strengths and abilities of autistic employees.

For example, Rising Tide is a carwash company in Florida that has attracted a lot of attention for its autism focus.

It’s worthwhile to keep an eye on autism employment news to spot opportunities as they come up. 

10

Prepare for Success

While it’s great to imagine a young autistic adult getting a great job and keeping it for a lifetime, that kind of success would be rare without a great deal of preparation and support.

The key points in planning include:

  • Involving at least one if not more disability-focused agencies
  • Active engagement of the employer (and sometimes an employer-managed training or internship program)
  • Training and practice of autistic employees
  • Job coaching and mentorship
  • Ongoing evaluation, troubleshooting, and problem-solving

Summary

If you’re an autistic adult or the parent of an autistic child, know that there are a growing number of options for employment.

Everyone person should be able to have a job that pays them fairly, uses their skills, and gives them a sense of purpose. While autistic adults have a lot to offer employers, there are still some challenges in the job search process that neurotypical candidates don’t face.

To prepare for these challenges, it’s important to know what’s available for support and resources where you live.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on the news to learn about employers who are making a point to develop neurodiversity programs and hire—and support—autistic workers.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Autism Speaks. Autism statistics and facts.

  2. Organization for Autism Research. A guide for transition to adulthood.

  3. Autism Society. Preparing to experience college living.

  4. Ning M, Daniels J, Schwartz J, et al. Identification and quantification of gaps in access to autism resources in the United States: an infodemiological study. J Med Internet Res. 2019;21(7):e13094. doi:10.2196/13094

  5. Autism Speaks. Workplace inclusion now.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.