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What Life Is Like for Autistic Workers

These employees often face discrimination, bias and bullying in the workplace

A man smiles while sitting in front of a window.

​Like many twentysomethings, Eric Ascher had trouble finding a job after graduating from college. But unlike some of his peers, he faced additional barriers to employment.

Ascher was diagnosed with autism when he was in high school. The news did not come as a surprise to him. He exhibited many telltale signs of the condition, such as difficulty maintaining eye contact and challenges interacting with others in social situations.

His condition made it particularly difficult to secure a job.

"I definitely struggled during some [job] interviews," Ascher said. "Hundreds of applications [and] dozens of interviews all led to nothing."

He isn't alone. In their early 20s, adults with autism had far lower rates of employment than their peers, according to a report by Drexel University. And nearly 42 percent of young adults with autism never worked for pay in their early 20s.

Disability awareness organization Autism Speaks says that most autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed despite having the skill sets and expertise to excel in the workplace. Even those who land jobs often experience stigmas, discrimination and bullying from their colleagues.

Avoid Pigeonholing Autistic Workers

Job interviews can represent a significant barrier for job applicants with autism.

Zoe Gross, director of advocacy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said autistic applicants are often screened out based on traits associated with the disability, such as a lack of eye contact, unconventional intonation when speaking or difficulty identifying nonverbal social cues.

Gross explained that these characteristics are not indicative of job performance.

"Interviewers may perceive an autistic interviewee as 'weird,' 'lacking confidence' or 'a bad cultural fit,' " said Gross, who is autistic. "Employers should focus the job application process on skills that will be necessary in the job—perhaps allowing candidates to demonstrate their skills rather than just discussing them."

After two years of submitting applications, Ascher eventually accepted an internship with RespectAbility in North Bethesda, Md. This nonprofit works to create systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities.

He quickly proved more than capable of doing the job. Ascher was eventually hired as a communications associate with RespectAbility, where he manages the company website and social media accounts, provides technical support for virtual events, and sends e-mail blasts.

"I might not be as great at communicating verbally with others as my colleagues, but there are other things that I'm far better at than them," Ascher said. Speaking about individuals with autism, he added, "We're more than capable of doing the work. We just need to be given a chance."

Autistic workers have many talents and interests. However, Gross said some employers pigeonhole these employees as being "great with technology," and many companies with "autism at work" programs focus on providing pathways only for math or technology jobs.

But these stereotypes limit the potential of autistic workers, Gross said. Employers should not assume that all workers from this demographic have the same interests and skill sets.

"It's very important that employers think about opening all kinds of jobs to autistic employees and providing services like job coaching that can help employees with intellectual disabilities succeed," Gross explained.

Tips for People Managers

Ludmila Praslova, SHRM-SCP, a professor of psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California, said many autistic employees have been shunned, bullied, exploited or underpaid in the workplace because of their condition.

Praslova, who has autism, once had a co-worker who constantly disrupted her concentration upon learning of her condition. She said these types of interruptions are "torturous" for autistic workers.

But instead of supporting her, Praslova's manager doubted her account of the situation.

"A manager who I know would never dismiss, say, an account of a woman who felt her space violated, insisted on gaslighting me into doubting my lived experience," Praslova said. "Autistic people are stereotyped as lacking empathy, but it's actually the more privileged and powerful people who lack empathy."

Anne Grego-Nagel, human factors engineer for Autism Speaks, said people managers play a crucial role in the experience of workers with autism.

Supervisors should give autistic employees with noise sensitivities the option to use earbuds or work in a quieter, private office, Grego-Nagel explained. Managers should also offer help with planning tasks as needed because time management and concentration could be an issue for these workers.

"As an autistic person, I can personally attest to the importance of managers and co-workers supporting autistic workers simply by being flexible in how they communicate and open-minded to behaviors that may be different from those they typically experience," she said.

Craig Leen, an attorney at law firm K&L Gates in Washington, D.C., said companies should train supervisors and hiring managers on how to communicate with autistic applicants and workers so they can better understand characteristics of autism spectrum disorder.

Leen, who has two children with autism, also said employers must make it clear that autistic employees are welcome in the workplace, and that having these individuals on staff adds to the "neurodiversity" of an organization.

This makes it much more likely that an employee will self-identify as being autistic, will participate in an employee resource group, and will seek any helpful accommodations that will make the employee's workplace experience happier and more productive, Leen said.

"Workplaces that do not do outreach and recruitment toward autistic individuals are missing out on a large and available set of skilled workers who could add so much to their workplaces and the economy," he said. 


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