One of the biggest challenges people with autism traditionally have faced is finding a job. Although many people with autism naturally possess some of the “soft skills” employers find so attractive – diligence, attention to detail and loyalty, as examples – a lack of appreciation for these attributes, a lack of understanding about autism and a shortage of accommodations too often serve as barriers to the workplace for many willing workers.
Fortunately, recent trends suggest some of those barriers might be coming down.
There’s plenty of room for improvement. According to the 2017 National Autism Indications Report, fewer than half of adults with autism who receive services have a paying job, and many of those are working for organizations that primarily employ disabled workers. Another batch of people with autism keep themselves occupied by doing volunteer work or taking unpaid positions, but more than a quarter of people with autism do not have any kind of job, paid or unpaid.
One thing working in favor of people with autism is the tightening labor market. Forced to think more creatively to find workers, employers are discovering the opportunities presented to them by people with autism. While I could find no hard data showing an increase in employment specifically among people with autism, anecdotal evidence would suggest that things are improving, and U.S. Department of Labor data suggest that the unemployment rate for all people with disabilities has decreased in recent years – and one would assume that people with autism have also benefited from that improvement.
But other factors could be working in the favor of the autism community, according to Michael Bernick, a contributor to Forbes magazine who authored the 2015 book “The Autism Job Club.” He outlined three key trends in a 2016 Forbes article that he sees feeding a bright jobs future for people with autism:
- Large employers’ targeted hiring campaigns. Microsoft, SAP, Salesforce and other tech firms have made headlines by launching efforts to recruit and retain workers on the autism spectrum, and big employers in other industries have followed suit. If these big firms show success with these efforts, expect to see smaller employers get onboard as well.
- Businesses built around people with autism. A Florida car wash has gotten a lot of attention for building its business around employing adults with autism, and it’s expected that others will follow. After all, when businesses recognize that people with autism are perfectly suited to certain jobs, they’ll likely begin to tailor businesses around those jobs.
- The gig economy and web-based opportunities. Bernick sees potential in the internet, and that potential is aided by web-based platforms – Picasso Einstein, Art of Autism and Autism Creatives Collective – that focus on the creations of painters, writers, musicians, artists and photographers who are on the spectrum.
Despite these encouraging opportunities, Bernick offers a couple of cautions. First, the three approaches above reach about 10 to 15 percent of people on the spectrum, he says, which means they’re leaving a lot of people behind. Second, while sweeping national trends are great, real hiring happens at ground level … which means national trends won’t help unless local employers embrace them. Bernick urges everyone to champion such efforts where they work.
I’d like to offer one additional caution: While the tightening labor market, initiatives like the targeted hires at Microsoft and other trends might attract lots of attention, we need to be sure they don’t give people the impression that the problem of employment for people with autism has been solved. For change to happen, all employers will need to consider how they can benefit from hiring people with autism.
After all, it’s nice to see initiatives like these making headlines, but it will be even better when they’re so commonplace that they are no longer news.