In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the employment of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Many posts have discussed programs to provide them with training and experience.
1. Autism employment initiatives with major employers continue to grow in number, but combined they impact a very small percentage of the autism adult population: Over the past five years, more and more autism employment initiatives have been launched by major employers. The most high profile autism employment initiative, “Autism at Work” has grown to 20 of the largest companies in the United States, with the original firms (SAP, Microsoft, EY) joined by JPMorgan Chase, VMWare, Salesforce and others. Still combined, the Autism at Work hires total fewer than 800 adults by the end of 2020. Another 80 or so major employers have autism hiring initiatives outside of Autism at Work, but together they employ fewer than 1500 workers.
2. Universities, major nonprofits and foundations have lagged behind the private sector in autism hiring, even though, with their missions, they should be at the lead: Universities have been notably absent as participants in autism employment initiatives. So too have private foundations and large nonprofits been absent. This is so even though these institutions often have greater flexibility and more relaxed work environments than other private sector firms, and even though they often congratulate themselves on their diversity and social goals.
3. “Autism talent advantage” has become a central concept in autism employment, but going forward it needs to be defined far more broadly than the tech skills possessed by a few: Autism talent advantage is a common phrase among advocates, usually associated with technical skills, memory skills, or some forms of savant skills. But the past few years have shown that the technical skills are present in only a small segment of the adult autism population, and the memory and savant skills are not easily fit into the job market. As we are able to look deeper, though, we find other skills and characteristics that are truer job advantages. Dr. Lawrence Fung of Stanford has compiled a strengths-based model of neurodiversity that identifies such strengths as persistence, detail orientation, loyalty, appreciation of the job, honesty. Strengths will differ for each worker, and it is up to job coaches to market the individual skills.
4. We’re learning that “autism friendly workplace” should mean far more than lighting or sound modifications: “Autism friendly workplace” is included in most of the manuals on autism employment, referencing lighting, sound modifications, and quiet spaces. But we’re finding that these physical improvements rarely go to the core obstacles for successful employment. The true “autism friendly” workplace will be one with a culture that balances business needs with forms of greater patience and flexibility.
5. We’re learning the importance of addressing comorbidities that have neurological ties to autism: Perhaps most importantly, going forward we need to confront the powerful mental health comorbidities that undermine employment. Such comorbidities as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder have neurological ties to autism. They bring impediments to job success that are far more serious than failure to make eye contact or understand social cues.