Reflections on Employment Issues for People with Autism, and Ways to Improve It

By Rebecca Witonsky


  • About 1 percent of the world population has autism spectrum disorder. (CDC, 2014)
  • Prevalence in the United States is estimated at 1 in 68 births. (CDC, 2014)
  • More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. (Buescher et al., 2014)
  • Prevalence of autism in U.S. children increased by 119.4 percent from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68). (CDC, 2014) Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability. (CDC, 2008)
  • Prevalence has increased by 6-15 percent each year from 2002 to 2010. (Based on biennial numbers from the CDC)
  • Autism services cost U.S. citizens $236-262 billion annually. (Buescher et al., 2014)
  • A majority of costs in the U.S. are in adult services – $175-196 billion, compared to $61-66 billion for children. (Buescher et al., 2014)
  • Cost of lifelong care can be reduced by 2/3 with early diagnosis and intervention. (Autism. 2007 Sep;11(5):453-63; The economic consequences of autistic spectrum disorder among children in a Swedish municipality. Järbrink K1.)
  • 1 percent of the adult population of the United Kingdom has autism spectrum disorder. (Brugha T.S. et al., 2011)
  • The U.S. cost of autism over the lifespan is about $2.4 million for a person with an intellectual disability, or $1.4 million for a person without intellectual disability. (Buescher et al., 2014)
  • 35 percent of young adults (ages 19-23) with autism have not had a job or received postgraduate education after leaving high school. (Shattuck et al., 2012)
  • It costs more than $8,600 extra per year to educate a student with autism. (Lavelle et al., 2014) (The average cost of educating a student is about $12,000 – NCES, 2014)

Additional sources: http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/

 

Autism has undoubtedly made my life difficult as it has prevented me from pursuing many mainstream careers and led me to feel a sense of despair at times because I feel excluded from society. At the same time, the autism is also a source of strength because it has given me a chance to help others and to connect with others who have similar experiences. I want to make a difference in the lives of people with autism by sharing my experiences and letting other autistic people who are being bullied in school and work and home know that you are not alone, that other people with autism understand you and want to support and empower you.

I am trying to come to terms with a difficult past and to work with employers so that they can better understand how to integrate autistic people into the workforce. I think that by coming together with mainstream employers we can help improve the odds of success for autistic young people in the workforce, and also educate employers about the social differences of autism, which sometimes impede efforts to integrate autistic people into the mainstream workforce.

Autism is not simply an identity; it is also an experience. It is a feeling of community with people who are like minded and who share similar passions and ideals and who want in many cases to challenge the prejudices and blinders of people in mainstream society who have persecuted us both intentionally and unintentionally. But my goal is not to focus on the persecution but rather to help people in mainstream society understand the experiences of autistic people so that they can also be our advocates and allies in a struggle to make the world a more humane place for everyone. I want to challenge the subtle and intentional biases which exclude autistic people from the mainstream workforce and educate students and employers about how to better accommodate and integrate autistic people into the mainstream workforce.

Autism is not simply an identity; it is also an experience.  It is a feeling of community with people who are like minded and who share similar passions and ideals and who want in many cases to challenge the prejudices and blinders of people in mainstream society…

Accommodating autistic people in the workplace starts with making the interview process more autism friendly. The traditional interview process, especially when combined with a behavioral interview, is frankly difficult and even hostile for autistic people because it focuses on our area of greatest weakness: namely our ability to read social cues and non-verbal body language. Autistic people have a social disability- which means that we cannot read social cues and non-verbal body language, and a result the mainstream hiring process discriminates against us and too often excludes us entirely. The problem is that employers are overly focused on the social aspects of the job and not on the ability to do the job itself. The interview process should be restructured for autistic people so that it focuses on the ability to do the job, and not on the social aspect of the job. Restructuring the interview process in this manner will make it friendlier and easier to accommodate autistic people in the workplace and also send an important message from employers about their commitment to tolerance, inclusion and acceptance for autistic people.

An interest in languages, the law, and mathematics can be the basis of a career as a translator, lawyer, or accountant. (Attwood, Page 297)

I think this assessment is not entirely correct

The translator field is worthwhile for autistic people because it doesn’t rely as much on social interaction – unless you are a court interpreter – in which case the social interaction piece becomes very important and may make it harder for the autistic person. I didn’t find law and accounting very accommodating to autistic people at all – in particular not accounting and auditing which are very socially driven. And I didn’t find the tax accounting side of accounting very accommodating either.

‘The person’s special interest can become a career path. People with AS are renowned for their expertise and this can lead to a successful career as an academic conducting research in their area of special interest, for example.” (Attwood, Page 297)

“Students with AS will need more ‘free’ time to adjust to the new lifestyle, learning environment, and academic requirements. They will also need guidance regarding the new social conventions and protocol at lectures and tutorials, when working on assignments, and sending email messages to staff. An appointed student ‘buddy’ or mentor can provide friendly advice regarding social protocols and expectations.”(Attwood, Page 293)

I would have benefitted greatly from such a mentor or buddy who could have advised me that it is not suitable for a young freshman to challenge a senior tenured professor – and this advice could have helped me avoid the conflicts and problems that ruined my career prospects in academia – though I later discovered that the professor with whom I clashed was anti-Semitic

“Universities are renowned for their tolerance of unusual characters, especially if they show originality and dedication to their research…. Not only are universities a ‘cathedral’ for the worship of knowledge, they are also ‘sheltered workshops’ for the socially challenged.” (Attwood, Page 301)

I felt that the university punished me for precisely these qualities, namely my originality and dedication to my research, so I strongly disagree with Attwood on this point.

I didn’t find this to be the case at all, at least not in the field of international relations that I tried to pursue. However, I suspect that the scientific fields may be more accommodating to a person with AS and that perhaps autistic people with a scientific or mathematical special interest may find more career success in academic. My late paternal uncle who most likely was on the spectrum had a successful career as a chemistry professor at Westchester State University, although his clashes with administrators in the chemistry field were nearly his undoing and the union had to fight for his right to get tenure even though he was an outstanding instructor and scholar of chemistry and science.

“Other people may accept the person’s eccentric personality when he or she has a valued knowledge, for example in identifying and valuing antiques, or solving a problem with a computer.”(Attwood, Page 297)

So people may value the autistic person if she can find a specialized field in which her expertise and talent is appreciated. A great example of this is John Elder Robison, who specializes in fixing antique cars, in particular high end European cars and whose primary clients are wealthy individuals who value his eccentricity and his detailed knowledge of this particular industry.

“Students with AS will need more ‘free’ time to adjust to the new lifestyle, learning environment, and academic requirements. They will also need guidance regarding the new social conventions and protocol at lectures and tutorials, when working on assignments, and sending email messages to staff. An appointed student ‘buddy’ or mentor can provide friendly advice regarding social protocols and expectations.”(Attwood, Page 293)

I would have benefitted greatly from such a mentor or buddy who could have advised me that it is not suitable for a young freshman to challenge a senior tenured professor – and this advice could have helped me avoid the conflicts and problems that ruined my career prospects in academia – though I later discovered that the professor with whom I clashed was anti-Semitic

“The person may need to rehearse having a job interview and discuss with someone who knows him or her well whether to accept a particular offer of employment. It is not a case of accepting just any offer of employment; the job must be suitable for the person with AS. If the job is not successful, this can have detrimental effect on the person’s self-esteem and likelihood of subsequent employment.” (Attwood, Page 298)

I agree with him about the need to rehearse a job interview; this need is important for NTs and is especially important for autistic people who tend to struggle both in the job interview and once on the job. found that the job world was a vicious cycle for me. The more I was rejected the less likely I was to pursue subsequent employment. And it was hard to break this cycle until I found out I was autistic and until I found the right job for me as an autistic person – namely teaching other autistic people in an autism friendly environment.   The year that I taught other autistic people was the happiest year of my life especially the happiest year since my diagnosis. I greatly enjoyed working for the Dan Marino Foundation as it helped to rebuild my broken self-confidence and to restore my sense of purpose and of self and my feeling of value in the world. It helped to heal my shattered self-esteem and to make me feel that I had a sense of purpose and value in the world.

“Students with AS will need more ‘free’ time to adjust to the new lifestyle, learning environment, and academic requirements. They will also need guidance regarding the new social conventions and protocol at lectures and tutorials, when working on assignments, and sending email messages to staff. An appointed student ‘buddy’ or mentor can provide friendly advice regarding social protocols and expectations.”(Attwood, Page 293)

I would have benefitted greatly from such a mentor or buddy who could have advised me that it is not suitable for a young freshman to challenge a senior tenured professor – and this advice could have helped me avoid the conflicts and problems that ruined my career prospects in academia – though I later discovered that the professor with whom I clashed was anti-Semitic

Bullying is a huge problem for other autistic people as well on the job as is social misunderstanding.

I have experienced some interpersonal problems at work. In the past, I had difficulty understanding the role of a coworker and made some terrific blunders. I have said things I ought not to and misunderstood what was said to me. The social aspects of life have always presented a problem, but I am working hard to ‘be nice.’.

“I’ve been such a free, stubborn spirit for so long that I have had some difficulty adjusting to supervision. After 3 years of employment, I just learned that one asks one’s supervisor if one may take time off. I thought one just told. This has been a struggle to learn and remember.” -Anna Magdalena Christianson, psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner and peer support specialist, co-diagnosed with anxiety and bipolar disorder along with autism (Grandin, page 76)

I personally have depression and anxiety and have been hospitalized twice in recent years due to my depression and anxiety. I also broke my knee in an accident on April 15, 2016, and underwent surgery and physical therapy for several weeks to overcome the injury.

“I honestly have never suffered bullying in the high tech world in the 21 years I have worked in it. Prior to this, I had to do a lot of ‘dancing’ to keep my jobs, both in the military and in every other work environment…My review has always included my autism related ‘quirks.’ I had to learn to see more ‘gray’ (as opposed to black and white), to network with others, and to see the ‘bigger picture’.” -Karla Fisher, senior technical program manager for Intel (Grandin, Page 102)

“No two children with AS have exactly the same profile of abilities, and experiences, and personality.” (Attwood, Page 247)

For this reason I’ve heard the saying that if you’ve met one Aspie, you’ve met one Aspie. So meeting one of us doesn’t mean you understand all of us.

“Once employed, there are specific issues that need to be addressed. The person with AS may need initial and continuing support and guidance from his or her employer regarding job expectations (particularly if there are any unexpected changes), the interpersonal skills necessary to work effectively and cooperatively in a team, and the organizational skills required, especially work priorities and time management. However, I have found that problems with personal hygiene have been the quickest way for a person with AS to lose a job.” (Attwood, Page 298)

“Unemployment not only means no income, it also means there is a lack of purpose and structure to the day, a lack of self-worth, and especially for people with AS, a lack of self-identity.” (Attwood, Page 301)

“Eventually the person may have the ability to become self-employed, perhaps working from home, and developing an expertise in an area that does not require being part of a team or organizational hierarchy. For example, many people with AS are often natural inventors, experts, and craftsmen. However, the person may benefit from the help of family members who can provide advice in situations where the person with AS may not be a good judge of character, and may be vulnerable to financial exploitation; or where the person needs a colleague who has the interpersonal skills needed to deal with the public, or prospective purchases of equipment designed and made by the person with AS.” (Attwood, Page 300-301)

The artistic entrepreneur is a common figure in the autism world. The story of Steve Selpal shows what autistic entrepreneurs and artists can do. Selpal is an artist and entrepreneur who started out working for Hickock Inc. in 1985 in Cleveland, Ohio. After losing his job at Hickock, he started his own business as an entrepreneur in the artistic field and is able to support himself as an artistic entrepreneur.

 

Author Image
Rebecca Witonsky is the founder and president of Essential Business Planning. EBP produces business plans for entrepreneurs to attract venture capital and bank loans. She created the business plans for two businesses that she launched herself, namely Private Equity Research which involved the publication of a Latin American newsletter that successfully targeted investment banks, venture capital, and legal firms and a private tutoring service. She has also written business plans for a mobile car wash service for a young Hispanic man, and Pet Group Homes of America which allows disabled people to take care of pets whose owners have become disabled.
Rebecca discovered her autism at age 36. This discovery changed her life and empowered her to help other people with disabilities. To that end, she has worked as an adjunct instructor of personal finance and entrepreneurship at the Dan Marino Foundation which serves young adults with disabilities. Rebecca also serves on the board of Leadership and Economic Empowerment for Developmental Disabilities which provides entrepreneurship services to the disabled population. In addition, she serves on the Florida Rehabilitation Council which monitors the state vocational rehabilitation system. She has delivered oral presentations before the Society of Human Resources of Broward County in 2015 and the Florida Rehabilitation Council in 2016 about employment issues concerning the disabled population.
Her other work experience includes serving as a research analyst for dbusiness.com which involved creating and managing a database of Venture capital backed technology companies. She published a research paper on storage virtualization and storage area networks for an IT auditing course. She has taken the Gold Coast School of Real Estate Course and is qualified to take the state real estate sales associate exam. She currently works as a staff accountant for Pompano Beach Holdings, a commercial real estate firm. Her educational background consists of a BA in International Relations from Brown University and a Masters Degree in Tax from Florida Atlantic University. She is fluent in Spanish and her industry strengths include Latin America, technology accounting, taxation, finance, and real estate but she welcomes the opportunity to work with clients of all industries. Her work experience includes serving as a research analyst for a local hedge fund. She has found successful investments in the US and Latin America including America Movil in the public markets and Mercado Libre in the private markets. She seeks the opportunity to deliver a presentation about her services to the Gold Coast Venture Capital Association and to participate in the global capital markets and investment world in general.
Rebecca can be reached at rwitonsky@essentialbusinessplanning.com.

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