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Autistics and Employment: Far Too Many Rivers to Cross

For as long as I have known about autism, I have heard reports that autistics have the highest unemployment rate among all disability groups – or, for that matter, just about any demographic. Even at the time of my own diagnosis (late 2000), by which such milder variants as Asperger Syndrome had been recognized, official rates were still awfully close to 100%. As public awareness improved during subsequent years, the numbers gradually went down, but nevertheless remained alarmingly high. This reduction was almost certainly due to expansion of diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV (1994) and the likelihood that many less-impaired autistics managed to find employment. In any case, I have always believed that these numbers are much higher than the actual rates, and that many undiagnosed autistics have long been employed in a variety of occupations (as was the case with me).

Karl Wittig, PE

Karl Wittig, PE

Whatever the real unemployment rate among autistics might ultimately be, there can be no question that a highly disproportionate percentage of the autistic population has serious difficulties finding employment. Along with the many studies that have established this, I have first-hand knowledge of the situation from attending and facilitating Aspie support groups for over 20 years, in addition to learning from books, articles, and presentations during those years. What has always struck me most is the observation that, for just about every person on the spectrum I have encountered who lost a job, the reason never had to do with incompetence, malfeasance (e.g., stealing), negligence, or absenteeism (the more common reasons why people are terminated), and always involved inappropriate behavior (sometimes a single incident), doing or saying things that were not well received, breaking rules that were never formally stated (“hidden curriculum” violations), or more generally interpersonal, social, or political issues. In fact, the only exception that I recall involved a “door-to-door” salesperson – an occupation that requires the ability to “read” potential customers and persuade them to buy products that they neither needed nor wanted – hardly the ideal job for an autistic with limited nonverbal communication and theory-of-mind skills.

A common story (one that I have heard numerous times) involves someone being let go because it was “just not working out,” in spite of previously receiving favorable performance evaluations, without being given an explicit reason for the termination (this is perfectly legal in “employment at will” states); clearly the real reason involved something apart from the quality of their work or adherence to workplace regulations. Sadly, by not being told the real reason (which they could not figure out for themselves), they were not able to learn what their mistakes were and thereby avoid repeating them.

Things Go From Bad to Worse

The first evidence of change in employer priorities that I noticed was around 1991, when some job advertisements began the practice of concluding lists of desired qualifications with such phrases as “strong interpersonal and communications skills required.” Interestingly, this was at least three years prior to the publication of DSM-IV, so that less-severe variants of autism were not even recognized yet. Apparently, human resource managers, who had never heard of the autism spectrum, were somehow familiar enough with its deficits to know that they did not want to hire anybody who had them.

For me, this was just further confirmation of what I had personally experienced for many years. Although a few people (amazingly) assumed that I had gotten just about every job I ever applied for (presumably based on my skills and accomplishments), the reality is that, even though responses to resumes and cover letters were usually quite fast (they must have been impressed by my credentials), the subsequent interview almost never led to a job offer. The only exceptions to this were research and development laboratories (I am an electronics engineer) – an environment in which a significant portion of the staff was often considered “eccentric;” such institutions, at the time, offered among the best working environments for those with autistic challenges, so I consider myself fortunate to have found my way there.

I also recall instances of on-campus interviews before my graduation which resulted in no job offer, while other students whose grades were (sometimes significantly) less than mine received offers from the same employer. I should mention that the job market in my field was especially good at the time. One especially memorable incident involved a chance meeting with a former employee of a company that I had applied to a few years earlier. He told me that he remembered those times well, and that this employer was so desperate for workers that they would have hired a chimpanzee if one had applied for the position. Once again, something other than the quality of my credentials must have been at play.

The situation began to deteriorate in the early 2000’s, with the “bursting of the tech bubble,” which resulted in massive layoffs in industries that were based (or relied) on modern technologies – terms like “downsizing” and “offshoring” became commonplace – and culminated in the financial crisis of 2008. In its aftermath were frequent news reports of 5 or 6 applicants for every available job; the result was a job market where employers could choose from many qualified applicants for every position they needed to fill. Often heard were commentaries that so-called “soft” skills, such as interpersonal and communication skills, were especially desired (to me, this was an acceleration of the trend started many years earlier). Also highly valued were such traits as flexibility and adaptability (bad news for autistics who famously have difficulty responding to change), as well as multitasking (again, not good for autistics with poor executive functioning skills). The result of this is that, as adverse as this employment climate was for everyone, autistics were especially disadvantaged. These were terrible times to be an autistic trying to find work and live independently.

One thing that I vividly remember from the ensuing period is an interview, on a network news program, of the CEO of a major online employment website several years ago. When asked what employers were looking for in the current job market, he said that, according to many hiring managers, the three most sought-after skills were interpersonal, social, and communication skills. As a member of a community that lives with challenges in these areas, I (needless to say) found this very disturbing indeed. Even more disturbing, however, was his subsequent comment that this should not be a problem for prospective job applicants because of the many classes, workshops, and seminars available to remedy such deficiencies. I seriously question the value of such miniscule measures for anyone, and can confidently say that, for those of us anywhere on the autism spectrum, the very idea that they could easily “fix” something that we have been challenged by our entire lives would be laughable were it not so tragic.

What Can Be Done?

There have been some bright spots in the effort to find employment for autistics. Major corporations (SAP, Microsoft, Walgreens, JPMorgan Chase, and Freddie Mac, to name a few) have created initiatives to hire autistics for specialized tasks at which they excel, recognizing that there are jobs which autistics can often perform and even excel at, making their employment profitable for the bottom line. Other companies, such as Specialisterne and Aspiritech, hire primarily from the autistic population. It is a good sign that autistics are being recognized for what they can do rather than dismissed because of their deficits. Still other organizations, such as Integrate Autism Employment Advisors (formerly ASTEP), serve to promote the hiring of autistics by major corporations and other large organizations. As praiseworthy as these efforts have been, I fear that they will not be enough. Considering the large size of the autistic population (the currently accepted incidence rate of 1 in 59 implies several million autistics in the U.S.), these jobs will only be available to a small percentage of the community.

It has always been my opinion that, in the past, there were many jobs that capitalized on common autistic skills and talents and yet were very plentiful. For example, repair and other technician jobs (what I would most likely have done had I not become an engineer) were highly abundant (I can remember at least one repair shop on every block in New York City when I was growing up), before it became cost-ineffective to repair most appliances and before much of U.S. manufacturing went overseas. Also, accounting and bookkeeping jobs were plentiful before personal computers automated these tasks, as were library and other research jobs prior to the advent of online search engines. These are just a few examples of jobs that many autistics could have been (and undoubtedly many were) employed at, long before the diagnosis even existed. Unfortunately, there is less and less demand for these skills, and more and more demand for skills that autistics are typically deficient in. Consequently, many autistics who may have found employment many years ago will have great difficulty in the present day.

Another initiative that has appeared on the scene are small businesses designed to be staffed primarily (if not entirely) by autistics. At a presentation about these efforts, I asked one of the speakers why it happened that, given news reports that the great majority of new businesses in the post-2008 recovery were small in size, there were no efforts, comparable to those for large corporations, to promote the hiring of autistics by these small businesses. The speaker replied that, although my comments were entirely correct, business owners nowadays want smaller numbers of employees who are adaptable and flexible, in particular, to perform a wide variety of tasks and to quickly “fill in” for other employees in their absence, even when not familiar with their jobs. Once again, their well-known autistic deficits make them less-desirable candidates for these jobs.

The Secrets of My Employment Success

Although, admittedly, my personal experiences with employment can hardly be considered typical for the autism community, some aspects may nevertheless apply to significant portions of the autistic population.

First, I quickly learned what I was good at in school and what I was not. Fortunately, my talents were in technical subjects such as physics, mathematics, drafting, and computer programming. Also, given my “obsession” since childhood with anything mechanical, electrical, or electronic, it was a foregone conclusion that I would attend an engineering college, which prepared me for a marketable occupation that I had aptitude for. More generally, autistics (and those who support them) need to understand that their restricted areas of ability and interest offer the best (perhaps only) hope of future employment, and that preparation for occupations that capitalize on these must be pursued as strongly as possible.

Second, as previously mentioned, I found a work environment in which my autistic differences, although not yet known as such at the time, were if not fully embraced at least tolerated (sadly, this is not true of most work environments nowadays). Every effort should be made to identify such environments and to place autistics in them whenever possible.

Finally, I realized (literally at the very beginning of my career) that I did not want to be a manager, even though this is considered the traditional career path (and even the “holy grail”) for those in my field and position. At the time, I observed that managers dressed more formally and spent considerable time at business-related meals. As it happens, I have sensory sensitivities involving clothing, along with severe selective-eating restrictions. Both are common autistic issues and, as such, were not as trivial as they were considered back then. Much more serious, however, is the fact that management positions require vastly different skills from those of their staff members; in particular, interpersonal and political skills are essential. My decision was vindicated years later when, after my diagnosis, I read an article by Temple Grandin in which she described how many autistics in various fields were so successful that they were promoted to management but subsequently let go after an average of six months. Instead, I was able to have a career that lasted almost thirty years. Just because an autistic is capable, or even outstanding, at one position is no guarantee that this will remain the case after a promotion or even reassignment to another post or department. Careful consideration must be given, particularly to skills and talents that are required for the new position.

Although much has been done to improve the situation and public awareness of both the potential and the challenges of autistics has substantially increased, I suspect that the problem of employment will continue to plague the autistic community for the foreseeable future.

Karl Wittig, PE, is Advisory Board Chair for Aspies For Social Success (AFSS). Karl may be contacted at kwittig@earthlink.net.

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