By Angela Andrews
In the world today, many fields are struggling to find people to fill roles after Covid, making it a shock that there is a population of highly educated and capable Autistic individuals where 85% are unemployed (Pesce, 2019). This is compared to the national unemployment rate of 3.5%, as of June 2022. In addition, 35% of Autistic individuals graduate from college versus the national average of 24.9% (Paul T Shattuck PhD, 2012), (Hanson, 2022). Those who do find employment are more likely to be underpaid, underemployed, and do not get good support, with a significant number expressing an inability to disclose they are Autistic or need support.
On top of this, Autistic individuals are far less likely to be employed as managers, directors, or senior leaders when compared to non-Autistic people, even when compared to those with other disabilities. In fact, research shows that Autistic adults have the lowest employment rate across all disabilities (Anne M. Roux, 2015). This is not due to being too disabled to work. The Census Bureau unemployment rate only counts those ready to work and actively seeking employment. The same parameters are applied to the detailed views of specific populations. This would not include those who are unable to work due to significant disabilities or who are too young or too old to work. It also does not count those who are capable of work, but have given up on finding employment, otherwise known as “Discouraged Workers” (Rosa, 2018).
Why is it that, despite being capable, eager to work, and skilled, Autistic people have the lowest level of employment across all groups?
Stigma against Autism and Autistic individuals has been found to be the leading cause as to why Autistic people struggle to find and maintain a job. Stigma patterns have been discovered against Autistic people that are not seen with other disabilities (Rosa, 2018). All disabled individuals face some level of social stigma and presumed incompetence. However, due to the portrayal of Autism in society, there is a significant added burden on Autistic individuals. Autistic people are either portrayed as someone who can count cards, or the toothpicks dropped on the ground in an instance but who will burn the house down with a toaster if left alone or as someone who is a brilliant doctor or scientist who can solve impossible puzzles in their brains and save lives but are socially inept.
For those who believe Autistic people can do crazy but unusual things and cannot care for themselves (like the first example, the movie Rain Man), they will not even consider hiring someone who is Autistic based on the impression the person would be incompetent- regardless of the fact the person may be holding degrees, certifications, and awards. In fact, they are more likely to believe that the person is lying about being Autistic or is lying about the degrees, experience, or awards, and will not hire because they are deemed inauthentic or dishonest.
On the other side, those who believe that Autistic people are completely socially inept but brilliant geniuses that can solve world problems with a quick visualization but are prone to meltdowns (like the second example, The Good Doctor). Meeting an Autistic person is an extreme disappointment most of the time because they are more normal than assumed. Again, it is often concluded that the person is lying about being Autistic because they are not a savant like media led them to believe. This exceptionally thin understanding of what Autism is leaves a vast majority outside the “definitions.” Either they are too high functioning to be Autistic because their basis for Autism comes from portrayals like Rain Man, or they are too low functioning because their basis comes from portrayals like The Good Doctor. Either leads to the same conclusion: they are lying and not worthy of consideration for a job.
Not being able to disclose being Autistic, or feeling unsafe in doing so, leads to significant issue. If Autistic employees do not tell potential employers or colleagues that they are Autistic, they could be labeled and judged for not “fitting in.” They see the differences, no matter a person’s attempt to mask them. This leads to labels such as “rude”, “weird”, “creepy”, “annoying”, and more. Lack of knowledge about Autism leads to incorrect and unfair judgments about a person’s character during the interview process and after hiring, leading to either the refusal to offer a position or the inability to hold a job that is offered.
Once an Autistic person finds a job, they face far more challenges in maintaining the job than
non-Autistic people or people with other disabilities (Heidel, 2022). Almost all Autistic people have experienced being fired for being Autistic. Managers may not realize that is why they are letting them go or rating them lower than their peers, but Autistic employees are commonly fired due to a fundamental lack of understanding about Autistic traits. The traits that are commonly cited as reasons for low ratings or firing are:
- The Autistic person did not understand fully what was expected of them. Managers often assume that someone should easily be able to “pick it up”, but for those who are Autistic, not having things clearly defined and explained will lead to confusion, misunderstandings, and mistakes, which are then blamed on the Autistic person as a failure to do their job. It becomes a vicious cycle that eventually leads to low scores and termination.
- The Autistic person is not social enough or is socially unaware and believed to not be a team player. Those who are Autistic and not social are seen as standoffish, cold, or uncaring. Given that most senior leaders have at least some degree of extraversion, and that it is normal to believe that one’s way of doing things is the best or only way, it is seen as a huge problem that the Autistic person is not sociable. This leads some managers to feel disappointment towards them. Those who are sociable Autistics may be socially awkward, which can lead to faux paus. This is then blamed on the Autistic person by their manager and peers and seen as a “choice” or “rudeness” rather than an accident. Due to this, no one tends to explain what the problem was, thus nothing changes.
- The Autistic person’s body language, facial expressions, or voice tones are often mislabeled and misinterpreted. Autistic people frequently have what is known as a flat affect. The flat affect is a part of the Autism diagnostic criteria for Autism and is where someone’s face, voice, or body language either show little to no change despite the mood or show unusual expressions that don’t necessarily fit (i.e., crying when inappropriate, laughing when inappropriate). Those who do not likely underwent extremely stressful training or trauma from abuse that have forced them to express emotions on their face or voice, but it is not natural for them to do so and was likely acquired through painful experiences. This lack of expressiveness, or unusual expressions, is often deemed deliberate lack of caring or rudeness by the manager and employees, leading the team to further isolate the Autistic person and eventually pushing them out.
The second largest reason for job loss for an Autistic person is due to a lack of willingness to provide appropriate accommodations. Due to misunderstanding about what Autism is, how painful the traits, such as sensory integration disorder, auditory processing delays, and physical manifestations of the stressors can be, managers often refuse even small accommodations on the grounds that no one else requires them. If they are provided, there is often complaint by non-Autistic employees about why the person is getting “special treatment.”
Given all the challenges faced by Autistic employees and employers alike, what are the reasons for hiring someone who is Autistic? Just as you cannot change the colors of a painting without it changing the artwork, you cannot change the brain of individuals without some unique gifts appearing.
Research has shown there are significant differences in the brain structure and function between Autistic and non-Autistic individuals and these differences have led to abilities not commonly found in non-Autistic people (Rettner, 2011). Studies have found that Autistic individuals have exceptional memory and can often remember things learned months or even years prior with clarity not typically observed in the general population. Studies performed utilizing visual memory showed that Autistic people performed 40% better than the general population due to strengths in this region. In addition, when tested on non-verbal and auditory tests, Autistic people again performed 40% better than their counterparts.
Furthermore, studies are now showing that Autistic intellect has been gravely underestimated due to a lack of accommodations (Strengths and Abilities in Autism, 2022). One researcher stated, “In measuring the intelligence of a person with a hearing impairment, we wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate components of the test that cannot be explained using Sign Language. Why shouldn’t we do the same for Autistics?” When researchers began removing barriers Autistic people had, the results demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of Autistic people are highly intelligent, particularly when compared against the general population. To further support these findings, genetic research has found that the same gene that increased the likelihood of a child being Autistic was the same gene that increases the likelihood of a child being a prodigy.
Due to massive increases in brain activity in the occipital and temporal lobes, Autistic individuals have an exceptional attention to detail. This can be seen early on in traits such as hyperlexia, which is an above average ability to read and decode language. It is not uncommon to find children as young as 3 years old who are Autistic and reading on their own, having taught themselves primarily. In addition, it leads to Autistic people becoming subject matter experts on their areas of interest or anything that has special meaning or importance to them. Finally, this is seen through astonishing capabilities with pattern recognition.
Harvard University and the University of Montreal conducted a joint study that found Autistic people can solve complex problems 40% faster than those with typical brain development due to advance perception and processing abilities. In addition, their problem solutions tended to be more creative and “out of the box” than their peers. This means that their unique view of things and capability for creative problem-solving benefits teams in bringing a fresh and new perspective and way of working.
Finally, additional studies have repeatedly demonstrated the following traits: exceptional honesty, reliability, dependability in regards to schedules and routines, a drive for perfection and order, an ability to hyper focus on tasks for much longer than average, a sense of wonderment and freshness to situations, far less likely to be judgmental or biased, a significantly higher level of loyalty to people and their place of employment, excelling at sequencing and calculating, extensive knowledge in their areas of interest, and a tendency to not be tied to social expectations (Otsimo Editorial Team, 2020). These traits, when applied in the workplace, make for a devoted and hard-working employee.
There are many capable, talented Autistic adults who are looking for work in fields where employers have trouble finding capable, loyal talent. Due to a lack of support, lack of knowledge, and the presence of significant stereotyping, most will struggle to find even a minimum wage job, despite having advanced degrees. By providing education to current managers and leaders as well as providing supports in the workplace, a vast workforce becomes available to companies, benefitting not only the company but the community by providing a fulfilling career to an overlooked and undervalued population.
Anne M. Roux, P. T. (2015). National Autism Indicators Report: Transition into Young Adulthood. Retrieved from Drexel Autism Institute.
Hanson, M. (2022, June 12). College Graduation Statistics. Retrieved from Education Data Initiative.
Heidel, J. (2022, February 18). "It's Just Not Working Out" - How Sudden Job Loss Traumatizes Autistic People. Retrieved from Specialisterne.
Otsimo Editorial Team. (2020). Strengths That Come With Autism and Why You Should Care. Retrieved from Otsimo.
Paul T Shattuck PhD, S. C. (2012, June). Postsecondary Education and Employment Among Youth With an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine.
Pesce, N. L. (2019, April 2). Most college grads with autism can't find jobs. This group is fixing that.. Retrieved from Market Watch.
Rettner, R. (2011, November 2). Autism Can Be an Advantage, Researcher Says. Retrieved from Live Science:
Rosa, S. D. (2018, February 27). Why is the Autistic Unemployment Rate So High? Retrieved from Thinking Person's Guide to Autism.
Strengths and Abilities in Autism. (2022). Retrieved from Altogether Autism.
Angela Andrews is an Autistic speaker and author with a background in Psychology and Data Analysis. She currently works as the manager of the Insights & Solutions team for Johnson & Johnson. Angela has given numerous talks, including her Tedx Talk “We Are Our Brains”, as well as numerous podcasts. In addition, she has contributed to several articles and books focusing on raising Autistic children, growing up with Autism, and Autism in the workplace.