Autism and Employment: A Work(ing) in Progress

For the most part, this blog is dedicated to issues affecting indexers and translators. This posting, by way of contrast, offers a look at an issue with somewhat broader implications for all of society.  Autism is characterized by social impairment.  Children on the autism spectrum struggle to master even the most basic of social skills.  Undoubtedly even modest success in that arena can only help them as they go through life.  However, even as adults they may find that their social deficits continue to haunt them as they struggle to form relationships or find employment.


April is National Autism Awareness month, and Jackie*, an adult on the autism spectrum, has a boon to pick with the promoters. It seems to her that children with autism get the lion’s share of the attention, despite the fact that plenty of adults live with this condition as well. Citing the use of the color blue as the popularly recognized symbol for autism awareness, Jackie states quite bluntly, “Tying it on blue does nothing for us. We need jobs.”

Undoubtedly, helping children get the best possible start in life has a major impact on the people they will one day become. The case can definitely be made not only for recognizing the special abilities of children with autism but also for helping them achieve their fullest potential, whatever that might be. The right start can not only enable children on the spectrum to make progress in overcoming their particular stumbling blocks but can also enable them to grow into capable and, in some cases, highly functioning adults.

The question is, what happens to these adults? What happens when, echoing Jackie’s words, they say, “We need jobs”? Can they get them? What does their employment situation look like?

India learned first-hand how difficult it can be for a person on the autism spectrum to get a job when she finished up her master’s degree in the late 1980s. Applying for jobs in her chosen field, for which she had worked hard to earn the right qualifications, she went through interview after interview but could not seem to convince anyone to hire her, even though she looked good on paper. It took her over a year of trying to land the job she wanted.

Fast forward a decade and a half. Having successfully held a job in her chosen field, India found herself out of work when her organization underwent a major management upheaval in the middle of the nation’s post-911 economic crisis. So she again started the application process, tried networking in her community, and again went through a round of interviews. Despite months of effort, she simply could not duplicate her earlier success in landing a job in her field.

Finally she resorted to starting her own business. Doing so meant entering into a whole new career field. During the first few years, her income took a substantial hit. Fortunately, during her years of working for an employer, she had built up some savings. That, plus the fact she didn’t have any kids to put through college undoubtedly helped to mitigate what could have proven a major financial hardship as she worked on building up her business.

Today, she can look back on over a decade of slow but steady business growth. As an independent business owner, she has experienced everything that goes with that — both pros (independence, being her own boss, flexible hours) and cons (time management issues, the endless battling of deadlines, the ongoing struggle to achieve a work-life balance, a lack of paid vacation time and benefits, etc.).

India realizes she’s one of the lucky ones. However, for many people, whether on the spectrum or not, starting their own business is simply not an option. Many lack the capital, the time- and money-management skills, the marketing skills, or perhaps a combination of these. Lacking the means either to start and maintain their own business or to convince anyone to hire them, these people can end up in a real bind.

Anyone who has ever looked for work has read the standard advice on how to make a good impression in an interview. We all know that first impressions count a great deal. But what happens if, despite repeatedly exerting our best efforts, we fall short? What if, through no fault of our own, we were born with a disability that hampers our ability to develop the interviewing skills that would convince potential employers to take a chance with us?

Trudy is one person who knows all about disabilities. She has dealt with lifelong visual impairment. Though successive surgeries have brought about a certain degree of improvement, her vision has remained limited to the point where she is legally blind and cannot drive. Writing on the subject of disabilities, she has described poignantly how a person with a disability has to struggle twice as hard as others, just to be half as good.

Now transfer that reality to the marketplace. Imagine that, due to social stumbling blocks you were born with through no fault of your own, you have to struggle twice as hard to be half as good when called for interviews. People on the spectrum don’t have to imagine it. They live with the reality every time they apply for a job. And when you’re faced with a competitive marketplace and other candidates for the job you want include scores of people who know how to ace an interview, guess what? Half as good doesn’t get you hired, no matter how heroically you have struggled to get that far.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, in force now for two and a half decades, is supposed in theory to provide persons with disabilities an equal employment opportunity. But what if people on the autism spectrum who suffer from very real interview stumbling blocks find themselves faced with a hiring system based largely on interviews and interviewing? For those people, equal employment opportunity may be a beautiful idea, but it is not the reality. Just ask India. Just ask anyone on the spectrum who has ever gone through interview after interview, struggling to make the best possible impression but never knowing if the prospective employer can see past the social awkwardness and the interview fumbling and bumbling that go with autism spectrum disorders.

To apply another disability-based analogy: One mother of an autistic adult son has compared the obstacles that autistic people face when trying to get hired to placing a person in a wheelchair at the head of a flight of stairs and then saying, “You have five minutes to get down these stairs. Good luck with that!”

If, five minutes later, the person still hasn’t figured out how to get down those stairs, what do we do? Do we try to come up with a reasonable accommodation for that person, in keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act? Or do we tell the person it’s all his fault he didn’t get the job because he failed to achieve the impossible? For someone on the autism spectrum, the reality can feel all too much like the second described outcome.

According to some statistics, about 15% of qualified adults on the autism spectrum are employed. Other sources offer differing figures, but all present a picture of disproportionate unemployment among persons on the spectrum. While it’s encouraging to know these people can, in some cases, find gainful employment, the fact remains that an awful lot of people have failed to achieve that goal despite long, drawn out repeated efforts.

Here is a challenge for employers to take up: What steps are you prepared to take so a person on the autism spectrum can get the job (s)he is qualified for, instead of always being presented with insurmountable obstacles that keep him or her from getting hired? Is a modification of the employee selection process perhaps in order? When it comes to achieving equal opportunity, what are you prepared to do to narrow the gap between the ideal and the reality?


Just over a week ago Jackie, who was quoted at the beginning of this article, got a job offer.  As this report goes out into cyberspace, Jackie is undergoing the routine background check required of all new hires selected by this particular employer.  Hopefully, all will go smoothly.  We wish Jackie luck as she embarks on her new venture.

*The names of persons mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.


Americans with Disabilities Act information:

Dauten, Dale and Jeanine Tanner O’Donnell. “First impressions aren’t all that count to savvy managers.” In J.T. and Dale Talk Jobs (career advice column), Arizona Daily Star, Sep. 25, 2012, p. A10. (This column recounts the struggles of India, cited above, to get a job.)

Employment statistics for persons with autism:

Grandin, Temple. Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. — 2nd Vintage Books ed. — New York: Vintage Books, c2006. 270 pp. (The book contains a chapter on the stumbling blocks faced by persons with autism seeking employment, as well as possible strategies for overcoming those stumbling blocks. An updated edition of the book came out in 2010.)

Li, Linxiao. “Finding work is tough, harder still for those with ‘invisible’ disabilities.” In Arizona Daily Star, Oct. 25, 2014, p. C7.

National Autism Awareness Month information:


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