Achieving and maintaining employment can be difficult and stressful for autistic adults. Parents and partners also have their concerns, as they often provide employment support and employers, line managers and co-workers need guidance in how to work successfully with an autistic employee.
Unfortunately, many autistic adults who have a job are under-employed, that is, their job does not match their abilities, qualifications, and aspirations or their duration of employment is less than anticipated. This is despite autism being associated with qualities that are sought by employers such as:
|Liking routines and procedures
|Sense of social justice and compassion
|Talent in identifying patterns and systems
|Enjoy cataloguing and recalling information
|Working logically and systematically
|Accuracy and precision
|Attention to detail and a perfectionist
|Creativity and innovative thinking
|Factual and technical knowledge
|Not letting socializing be a distraction
|Identifying and correcting errors
|Honest and loyal
|Passion for their chosen career
Having a successful career will significantly improve self-worth and self-identity, provide structure and purpose to the day, an opportunity to make friends, increase income and greater financial independence, and be an effective antidote to low self-esteem and depression.
From our extensive clinical experience, we consider that no job or career would automatically be viewed as impossible due to autism. This can include the expected careers in engineering, information technology, science, and accountancy but also a career in the arts in terms of being a fine artist, musician, actor, or author. We have also known autistic adults who have been successful in the caring professions, from nursing to psychology and caring for animals such as being a vet or zookeeper. There is no automatic restriction on choice of career.
How to choose that career? The first option may be to see if there are employment prospects related to a special interest or talent that is associated with the person’s profile of autism and personality. A childhood talent with LEGO® that develops during adolescence into an intense interest in the design of machines could become the basis of a successful career in mechanical engineering. A determination to understand people may develop into a career in psychology and the caring profession, and a difficulty expressing inner thoughts and feelings using speech may lead to a talent in self-expression and perception in the arts.
We highly recommend that autistic adolescents have a detailed assessment of vocational abilities during the high school years to identify whether a talent or interest could be the foundation of a potential career. There will also need to be an assessment of vocational abilities that need improvement, such as teamwork abilities and coping with changes in job expectations. This information is then included in the high school curriculum. Autistic adults will need similar assessments, careers guidance and improvement of employment skills which could be provided by an employment agency.
When there is a history of failed employment experiences, this can provide valuable information on what skills or employment accommodations are needed and which jobs or workplaces to avoid. It may take several employment experiences before finding the right job with the right employer.
When searching for a job that matches abilities, interests, qualifications, and personality, it is important to find as much information as possible about the social and sensory aspects of the job. This can include personal space such as an open plan or single person office space, working independently or in a team, and sensory aspects such as sounds, lighting, clothing, and scents. It is also important to consider the understanding of autism of the line manager and colleagues and their willingness to learn about autism. Autistic people can sometimes have a ‘sixth sense’ to quickly appraise the social atmosphere of a new situation, and a positive or negative attitude can become apparent on meeting the staff prior to or during the interview. We recommend trusting that intuition.
There will probably be a need for guidance in completing the job application form and, deciding whether to disclose the diagnosis. There are no clear rules on disclosure when applying for a job, and it is sometimes a personal decision based on whether disclosure would facilitate or inhibit achieving an interview or being employed. It is also important to decide what to wear for the interview and to rehearse how to answer the anticipated questions during the interview. If autism has been disclosed in the application, it may be an advantage to prepare a brief brochure on autism and associated qualities in relation to the position. The brochure can be attached to the application or given to those conducting the interview.
A job interview is a complex social ordeal. There is an expectation of accurately reading the body language of those conducting the interview, and succinctly and honestly answering their questions. An autistic candidate may have difficulty knowing the non-verbal signals and social conventions in an interview. We highly recommend practice and rehearsal in interviewing techniques and having an informative portfolio of relevant work experience that can be the focus of the interview. If those conducting the interview know that the person has autism, it will help to describe some of the difficulties associated with autism, but that these are significantly less than the qualities required for the position, and that there are strategies to facilitate successful employment.
Starting The Job
There are potential employment issues associated with autism that will probably become apparent when starting a new job. These include the social aspects of the work, executive functioning abilities, sensory sensitivity, changes to job expectations and stress management. We have described these issues in some detail and provide strategies to overcome them in our recent publication Autism Working (Garnett and Attwood 2021) These are some of the issues and strategies.
The characteristics of autism include difficulty achieving social and conversational reciprocity, reading non-verbal communication, understanding different perspectives, developing teamwork skills, and following conversational rules. Workplace social communication challenges can also include discussing confidential and personal topics at work and respecting co-worker/employee boundaries. There can be difficulties knowing the social expectations and engagement in social events such as a celebration party and a vulnerability to being bullied and teased.
Strategies to reduce social communication difficulties include having a work mentor to explain the workplace social dynamics and protocols and developing social scripts to explain autism and seek support. Examples include how to communicate a preference for solitude during breaks, end a social conversation and return to work and reading the signals when a colleague or line manager does not want to be interrupted.
This can include a propensity to be distracted by detail, organizational and planning difficulties, time management, prioritizing, and self-monitoring. We have also noted difficulties regarding unorthodox work routines and coping with errors, both personal and colleague’s errors. The autistic employee may need more supervision and guidance regarding executive functioning abilities than other employees. It is important that the line manager discuss strategies to minimize such difficulties and to have regularly schedules meetings to provide feedback on performance, workplace accommodations and areas for personal improvement.
The most common sensory sensitivity associated with autism is to specific sounds, but there can also be sensitivity to tactile experiences, light intensity, and aromas. Autistic adults often describe some sensory experiences as painful; the anticipation of such experiences creates anxiety and becoming hypervigilant. There is also the potential for sensory overload which is extremely distressing.
Coping mechanisms include explaining the sensory sensitivity to colleagues and line manager and requesting accommodations such as working some distance from the sound of the hand dryer or fridge and if possible, having natural rather than fluorescent lighting.
Changes To Job Expectations
A characteristic of autism is a difficulty coping with change and the unexpected. It is inevitable that there will be changes in the work environment, but it is important that the autistic person is given as much warning as possible and provided with an explanation of why there is a change of plan and expectations. This will enable the autistic person to create a new mind set.
It is also important to be aware that while promotion is considered a reward for the quality of work, there can be difficulties if the new role requires greater social and teamwork skills. It is important to consider social communication challenges in career and promotion planning.
When work demands exceed an autistic individual’s resources and abilities, stress is the inevitable result. It is important that the autistic employee knows their personal signs of work-related stress, which work situations create significant stress, and that stress levels are communicated to the line manager.
High levels of stress will affect work performance and could lead the autistic person to resign. There may be strategies to reduce stress at work such as having a quiet retreat area to reduce stress and restore energy, using relaxation strategies and an opportunity to de-brief at work or home.
Autistic adults often have difficulties getting and keeping a job, despite having many qualities that employers seek. We need to assess an autistic person’s employment attributes and challenges, enhance their employment qualities, and address their employment issues. We also need to educate the workforce in how to accommodate and benefit from an autistic employee or colleague.
Employment Resources for Autism
We have applied our extensive experience of autistic adults to create a seven-stage plan to facilitate successful employment in our new book Autism Working and with our colleague Barb Cook, created a presentation on autism and employment available now as an online course. This course will be of great interest to:
- HR Managers
- Line Managers
- Team Members
- Mentors and employment agency staff
- Autistic employees, and
- Autistic adults looking for and maintaining employment.
- Parents and carers of autistic adults
Garnett M. and Attwood T. (2021) Autism Working: A Seven-Stage plan to Thriving at Work Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.