What Employers and Society Gain from Workers on the Spectrum

We have a duty to foster meaningful, sustainable lives for people with autism.

Posted May 12, 2020

The doctors said they’d never seen such a sick child. They wanted me institutionalized and taken from my family so someone else could work through my meltdowns and communication problems.

I wasn’t even 3 years old. 

Carl Dwyer from FreeImages
Source: Carl Dwyer from FreeImages

My parents, to their credit, rejected the advice. They took me home instead and became immersed in the world I had created for myself as a significantly affected youngster on the autism spectrum.

By age 4, my verbal communication began to return. By 6, I was burying myself in library books and taking notes. Fast-forward through a couple of decades — I was wrapping up my doctorate in special education.

As more people — including autistic individuals — face economic uncertainty during the pandemic-led downturn, there’s a timely lesson in my story: Rather than focus on what people on the spectrum can’t do, we must take an abilities-centered approach.

That is, we must explore what they’re uniquely suited to do and support them to build productive, sustainable, fulfilling lives that reinforce society.

I’ve been arguing for this imperative for years; however, the international COVID-19-related economic collapse makes it even more urgent. The global unemployment rate for people with autism was already around 80% — and that was before the pandemic struck. Now rapid declines in the employment market threaten to inflate that exorbitant number even more.

The technology sector has already developed a meaningful appreciation for workers on the spectrum, with employers like Google, SAP, and Apple gaining publicity for their hiring practices. Still, most people with autism have strengths better suited to other lines of work as well. As I tell my students: If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. Our individual skills and abilities are as diverse as those in any group.

Consider an autistic individual I know in Florida who revels in folding laundry. It’s a task that would bore most people to tears. But he finds enormous satisfaction in the predictable work and has found a job that lets him pursue it.

These are the characteristics that we need to be identifying and cultivating. Despite stereotypes, not all people with autism have some savant-like qualities. We’re regular folk, often with skills and interests that diverge from the mainstream. One of us may not speak but can nimbly organize a warehouse. Another might thrive from managing library books. In ways, we can contribute more than most in particular areas.

When we do, we give back mightily — supporting ourselves, our communities, and our society. We pay taxes instead of requiring as much public assistance. We bring joy into our days, and into yours.

Especially now, we have a collective duty to make possible these sustainable lives of meaning and happiness. One in 54 of us is on the spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether you’re an employer, a volunteer or an educator, each of us has a role to play. It is only by all of us working together, autistic or otherwise, will we push through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic — and emerge all the stronger on the other side.