Employment is a very pressing matter for adults on the spectrum. Young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are less likely to be employed (34%) compared to all young adults with a disability (54%) and young adults without disabilities (83%) (Source). In most cases, for young adults without ASD, you must have at least an undergraduate degree to be competitive in the job search, but for young adults on the spectrum, an undergraduate degree will not necessarily make the individual more competitive (Source). In fact, young adults with ASD who have a bachelor’s degree are two times more likely to be unemployed compared to their counterparts without ASD (Source). Though having a bachelor’s degree does not guarantee anyone employment, it does help; however for a young adult with ASD, it may not necessarily make a difference. Greg Beaupre, the Brookline Out of District Coordinator, states that it can be beneficial for young adults who have higher functioning ASD to have an undergraduate degree, but for those who are lower functioning, a certificate of completion from a vocational school can be just as helpful when looking for employment.
There is ample evidence that illustrates benefits of hiring employees that have ASD (Source). Employers most often look for traits such as trustworthiness, reliability, and low absenteeism. If given the chance, young adults with ASD often demonstrate these traits. For instance, they will have a strong attention for detail and intense focus resulting in an increased work output. They may also enjoy performing jobs that are most often despised by others because of the social isolation and repetitive nature of that job. So, why wouldn’t employers want to hire these individuals? In this piece I will provide information to better understand the obstacles faced by individuals with ASD that pertain to employment opportunities. Hopefully, with this information, employers will learn how to better communicate with their employees on the spectrum and young adults with ASD will learn ways to be more successful when applying to and maintaining jobs.
The following video highlights SAP, a software company that recognizes the various benefits of hiring young adults on the spectrum
The first and often most challenging obstacle to overcome in the job search is the interview (Source). Young adults with ASD have difficulty seeing from the perspective of others. For employment purposes, this difficulty makes it hard for young adults on the spectrum to understand how others perceive them through their resume, personal appearance, and performance in the job interview (Source). Beaupre has a few tips that can be helpful when a young adult on the spectrum is preparing for an interview:
- Participate in simulated interviews based on the type of job being applied for. This can be done with individuals ranging from school staff to fellow peers.
- Bring visual, tangible evidence to present during the interview. For example, a portfolio supporting their vocational experiences (volunteering, internships, paid employment) that includes both visuals and descriptions of duties performed to be shared with the interviewer.
- In high school, the transition staff should utilize Work-Based Learning Plans (WBLP). A WBLP works essentially as an IEP in the workplace. The WBLP is where job coaches can gather feedback from employers and comprise deficiencies along with ways to work through those deficiencies. The positive feedback from the WBLP can be used in the young adult’s portfolio. Here are some resources for a WBLP.
Upon employment, actually maintaining that job can be very difficult for young adults on the spectrum due to a wide range of challenges. The first, and most common obstacle is communication barriers with both supervisors and coworkers (Source). One communication barrier that individuals on the spectrum struggle with is receptive language (Source). In a job situation, this is demonstrated by not fully understanding directions, an inability to “read between the lines,” an inability to read facial expressions and tone of voice as well as asking too many questions and communicating in an inappropriate manner (Source). Individuals with ASD may also have social barriers such as inappropriate hygiene and grooming skills, difficulty following social rules, and acting inappropriately with individuals of the opposite sex. Young adults on the spectrum also have various obstacles with cognitive functioning. For instance, they may have impairments in executive functioning (organization and time management), difficulties in task execution, acclimating to new routines, managing challenges in a work setting, and difficulty in problem-solving. Here are a few ways to combat these challenges (Source):
- Employers should make sure the individual with ASD fully understands the directions and ask if he or she has any questions to ensure a successful task outcome.
- Young adults on the spectrum should practice patterns of task planning, setup, and completion to increase success of job demands.
- To help enhance time management skills, young adults on the spectrum can make a plan in the morning by making lists or having the assistance of a job or life coach to maintain daily routines.
Young adults with ASD can also have behavioral difficulties in the workplace such as having tantrums, being aggressive, having ritualistic behaviors along with self-injury and property destruction. To have appropriate workplace behavior, a young adult on the spectrum should develop these workplace skills (Source):
- Being a good self-advocate; understand when it is appropriate to seek help or make a complaint about work conditions
- Controlling emotional expression in the workplace
- Understanding how to resolve conflict in workplace settings
- Identifying a supportive person in the workplace who can act as a mentor for confusing situations and day-to-day questions
- Recognizing typical social conflicts that occur in any work setting and having a plan of action for resolving them
The next obstacle is transportation. The job taken is impacted by where the individual lives, the ability to drive or afford a car, the ability to utilize transportation and the related pressures (Source). It is not uncommon for an individual on the spectrum to be unemployed because of transportation related issues. This plays into the final obstacle, which is financial management. An individual on the spectrum may have no prior experience handling money while being financially independent.
Here are some ways to help with these issues:
- If the individual with ASD cannot drive, housing should be located near major systems of public transportation. Then the individual should practice using those transportation symptoms to ensure he or she can independently and successfully get to work on time.
- The young adult on the spectrum should practice managing small amounts of money on a day-to-day basis, engage in banking activities, or have a part-time job in high school or college to have a more mature concept of financial management.
Finding a job can be difficult for anyone, but for adults with autism, that challenge is intensified. Not only do adults on the spectrum have unique challenges finding employment, but they also have unique challenges maintaining employment. Being an employed individual on the spectrum provides benefits not only for the individual but also for the employer. If employment is benefitting both sides of the workforce, why are so many individuals with ASD still unemployed? I hope my three-part series on education has been helpful in understanding the unique challenges of young adults on the spectrum! Just because these challenges exist, does not mean these young adults cannot thrive throughout their lives.
About the Author
Molly Sullivan, Research Intern
Originally from Dover, Massachusetts, Molly Sullivan is a psychology and human development student at the University of Maryland. As the 2015 community service chairman of Delta Delta Delta, Molly planned community service events with Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN), a nonprofit organization that allows children and young adults with physical or developmental disabilities participate in recreational activities. Molly’s goal is to get her MSW and work with kids or young adults who have developmental disabilities. At Madison House, Molly is a research intern writing a three-part series about life after high school for students on the spectrum.
Briel, L. W., & Getzel, E. E. (2014). In their own words: The career planning experiences of college students with ASD. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 40(3), 195-202.
Geller, L. L., & Greenberg, M. (2009). Managing the transition process from high school to college and beyond: Challenges for individuals, families, and society. Social Work in Mental Health, 8(1), 92-116.
Hendricks, D. (2010). Employment and adults with autism spectrum disorders: Challenges and strategies for success. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 32(2), 125-134.
Murray, N., Hatfield, M., Falkmer, M., & Falkmer, T. (2016). Evaluation of career planning tools for use with individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 23, 188-202.