Autistic people are confronted with an array of barriers in many situations throughout their life. These situations centralise around what general society expects of all people, a one size fits all model, without the distinct consideration of disability, difference and inclusion. With the added individual challenges of effective communication skills, lack of self-advocacy and self-determination skills, and the overall impact of anxiety, feeling inadequate and little self-confidence, autistic people are desperate for their voices to be heard (Paradiz, Kelso, Nelson & Earl, 2018). These voices must therefore be acknowledged, respected and acted upon in educational and employment settings, as these aspects of life heavily decide the outcome of the future for the autistic person. If these individuals are not set up for success, given the tools and strategies that they can implement to support and advocate for themselves, then we, as a society are failing at providing pathways to include and value them.
Research reports that autistic people have the lowest employment rates and more specifically, the lowest rate of employment amidst all disability groups (Roux et al., 2013). In my home country, the Australia Bureau of Statistics (2014) states a low employment participation of 42% by autistic people, highlighting the glaring concerns as to why these individuals are failing to gain employment. Again, the United States documents only 58% are in paid employment with Canada’s extraordinarily low participation rate at 21.5% (Roux, Rast, Rava, Anderson & Shattuck, 2015; Zwicker, Zaresani & Emery, 2017). In 2016, the United Kingdom’s National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information campaign exposed that only16% of autistic people are in full time work, and overall only 32% are in some kind of paid employment. Despite their ambition to work and, more so, their capacity to work affirms the necessity in identifying barriers and critical strategies on how to effectively support autistic people in gaining and maintaining meaningful and fulfilling employment.
To truly understand the needs and supports of autistic people is to listen. Society as a whole must support the autistic person in finding their voice, and facilitate them in conveying what their goals, vision and dreams are for the future. To attain these visions, suitable, quality and satisfying employment is the key in attaining these life goals. However, the autistic community has clearly identified its barriers and are demanding change in focus of all stakeholders that propose to support these people.
Important changes occur when stakeholders have a goal and feel connected to having a purpose in making change (Senge & Kleiner, 1999). These changes need to start with educators listening to the parents and the autistic child’s needs and supports, work with them collaboratively and inclusive of both their concerns, and jointly work together in finding solutions that provide the best possible future. Young autistic adults need to be heard and supported in finding their voice so they can advocate for themselves, setting them up for adulthood and a future that they can independently decide for themselves. Employers need to work with autistic people in creating working environments that support them, consider their sensory needs and value their unique way of viewing the world, and facilitate them in expressing new ideas and concepts that can effectively benefit all in the workplace.
Employers can step up and embrace the challenge of change through re-evaluating the way their business approaches and identifies potential employees. The antiquated recruitment model segregates and excludes diversity in thought and expression. Competent communication skills, and, more specifically, that of verbal language skills, is still currently viewed as an essential skill in expressing one’s personal talents and worth to a potential employer, particularly in the interview process and in the workplace. Effective communication often poses as a significant barrier for autistic people (Hendricks, 2010), experiencing great difficulty in conveying not just their needs and concerns, but also their worth and value. Changing the interview process to reduce the focus on communication savviness is a critical start. Placing emphasis on identifying the value in “outside of the box” thinking, ascertaining the importance an employee who is dedicated, honest, reliable and trustworthy, makes good business sense.
Employers that expand on the inclusion initiative by supporting and growing their potential and current autistic and neurodivergent employees will reap the benefits in a multitude of ways and become the leaders in change and true inclusion. The key to change is responsible communication. Communication must focus on listening and implementing supports and strategies that assist the autistic or neurodivergent person. Every opportunity should be presented through application and interview processes that assists them in conveying their worth, value and potential. When employed, feedback and communication is essential in growing together with the employee. Through my experience when working with a breakdown in the workplace, the key element to this breakdown is the disintegration in communication. Either or both sides feel unheard, misunderstood or unsupported. An employer that takes the initiative and time to step back, understand and identify how they can support their employee will reap the benefits ten-fold. An employee that feels valued and supported will often do their utmost in return. And this applies for all employees; listen, communicate, act and support.
As understanding grows around neurodiversity within the workplace, employers embracing differences and supporting autistic and neurodivergent people to grow into their potential – these genuinely inclusive practices strengthen and ignite positive growth within business. Autistic and neurodivergent people bring a unique strength, dedication and high work ethic to the workplace that must be embraced, with an environment provided for them to grow. These people, when supported and given every opportunity to flourish, become the role models of a dedicated and loyal employee. They are the potential compassionate and moralistic leaders of our future and can be pioneers of a new way of thinking and evolving together that benefits not just autistic people, but every person within the workplace, creating a truly inclusive work culture.
Barb Cook, M.Aut., is a Developmental Educator (DE) and Autism and Neurodiversity Employment Consultant. Barb has a Master of Autism (Education) with focus on employment from the University of Wollongong, Australia, where she is also a tutor in this program and a research assistant in the area of self-determination and self-advocacy for adults on the autism spectrum.
In 2009, Barb was formally diagnosed on the autism spectrum along with ADHD and phonological dyslexia at age 40. She is editor and co-author of the internationally acclaimed book Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism, and founder of Spectrum Women Magazine. Barb is an internationally recognised speaker and writer and was keynote and a panel participant for a special event “A Woman’s Voice: Understanding Autistic Needs” for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM) in Washington DC, USA.
As a Developmental Educator, Barb focuses on developing individualised learning strategies, tools and supports with positive outcomes for individuals across the lifespan. Barb embraces a collaborative approach by working with health and educational professionals, support staff, employers, employees, families and caregivers to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding of a person-centred approach in fostering positive support and enhancement of life outcomes. Barb has extensive experience in working with people on the autism spectrum, ADHD and dyslexia, especially with adults in creating pathways in attaining life goals in the areas of education, employment, health and interpersonal relationships.
Australian Bureau Statistics, (2014). 4428.0 – Autism in Australia, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4428.0Main%20Features62012?opendocument&;tabname=Summary&prodno=4428.0&issue=2012&num=&view
Hendricks, D. (2010). Employment and adults with autism spectrum disorders: Challenges and strategies for success. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 32(2), 125.134. doi: 10.3233/JVR-2010-0502
National Autistic Society. (2016). The autism employment gap: Too Much Information in the workplace. London, UK: National Autistic Society. Retrieved from https://www.autism.org.uk/~/media/nas/get-involved/tmi/tmi%20employment%20report%2024pp%20web.ashx?la=en-gb
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Roux, A., Shattuck, P., Cooper, B., Anderson, K., Wagner, M., & Narendorf, S. (2013). Postsecondary Employment Experiences Among Young Adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(9), 931-939. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2013.05.019
Senge, P., & Kleiner, A. (1999). Dance of change. Challenges of sustaining momentum in learning organizations. A fifth discipline resource. New York: Doubleday.
Zwicker, J., Zaresani, A., & Emery, J. (2017). Describing heterogeneity of unmet needs among adults with a developmental disability: An examination of the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 65, 1-11. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2017.04.003