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Autism and the Workforce

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Individuals with autism can face substantial challenges navigating the workforce. Recent research suggests that 20 percent of adults with autism are unemployed, while other estimates are much higher. This gulf may begin at a young age: Only 58 percent of people with autism aged 18 to 25 worked for pay, while 74 percent of people with intellectual disabilities and 95 percent of people with other learning disabilities worked for pay at the same age.

However, companies are increasingly recognizing the value of cultivating a diverse workforce and embracing those with autism for the unique perspective they contribute. Programs have sprouted up at large companies, such as SAP and Microsoft, which actively hire and support people with autism. The government also provides financial incentives for companies to employ people with disabilities such as autism. These approaches open up the possibility for those on the spectrum to transform their natural interests and abilities into marketable skills.

What employment challenges do people with autism face?

Many adults with autism confront unemployment and underemployment throughout their lives. They may struggle during the interview process, which often relies on eye contact, a bold personality, and creating a bond with the hiring manager. Once in a new role, people with autism may be unable to navigate the social dynamics of a workplace—with regard to assignments, clients, or office politics—and eventually lose their job.

What are good job options for autistic people?

The passions and fixations that are a hallmark of autism can translate into valuable skills in the workforce. People who are drawn to patterns or puzzles may excel at software testing, quality control, or other roles in the technology sector. Other positions in autism-friendly companies include working on stockroom operations, production lines, data entry, and accounting. Autistic people should explore how their natural interests and talents overlap with the needs of particular positions in the job market.

What are the benefits of hiring employees with autism?

People with autism face a high unemployment rate, but employers and society both gain from hiring workers on the spectrum. Higher functioning individuals can excel in jobs that fit their abilities and interests, from folding laundry to coding software. As autism becomes increasingly prevalent, it's key for companies to take an abilities-centered approach by identifying what autistic employees are uniquely suited to do and recognizing that they can be reliable and hard-working.

Companies may also be eligible for tax credits and deductions when hiring employees with disabilities. These financial incentives aim to encourage companies to hire differently abled employees and offset any costs that accompany their condition. Some adults with autism believe that this is the best approach for individuals on the spectrum to obtain and sustain employment.

Which companies are autism-friendly?

Many companies now actively hire people with autism. The software giant SAP has established itself as a leader in incorporating people with autism into the workforce. It aims to value and support diverse forms of thinking and problem solving. The program began in 2013 and has a 90 percent retention rate, according to the company website. Other businesses with autism programs include Microsoft, HP, Ernst and Young, Ford, and Home Depot.

Should I tell my employer that I have autism?

The decision to disclose an autism diagnosis is a personal choice. It’s up to you to choose when and how you want to have that conversation—with your employer or anyone else in your life.

It’s valuable to discuss the decision with a mentor or loved one ahead of time. Reflect on what you hope to gain, who you want to tell, and how they might react. If your goal is to receive accommodations at work, consider having the discussion with a human resources representative and being specific about what you need. You may also be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, under which employers must provide reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities.

How can companies support employees with autism?

Clarity is key for building an autism-friendly workplace: Managers can give clear directives and deadlines to employees, and then help clear any obstacles that prevent those directives from being accomplished. Managers can be open, honest, and appreciative of creativity and different ways of thinking. They can also provide a quiet place to work if the office is loud and ensure that lights are not flickering to address the sensory symptoms of autism.

The traditional interview process focuses on conversation and connection. Replacing that with an aptitude test or skills-based task can help companies hire more capable employees with autism.

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