The autistic employment conundrum

Underemployment is consistently one of the biggest problems for autistic adults. Numerous autistic traits contribute to the difficulties of autistic adults in finding and maintaining employment.

We struggle or lack social skills. This affects our ability to do well in job interviews and our ability to network, which has been shown to be more vital to success than intelligence or job skills.

We struggle with burnout and may not be able to keep up the same work-related pace as neurotypicals. It’s hard to work eight hours a day, five days a week, non-stop. We can usually produce the same amount of work, but we tend to thrive better by working longer hours and then taking regular breaks.

Our behaviors can be disturbing to neurotypical colleagues. Agitation, irritability, and other tics tend to be frowned upon in neurotypical society. We can mask, but the longer we mask, the more burned out we become, and autistic burnout can lead to massive mental health problems.

According to Autism Now, only 32.5 percent of autistic young adults are employed, while 78 percent of neurotypical youth are employed. According to Bury et al. (2024), autistic people struggle to find and keep jobs. They said that several key factors can increase the likelihood of this, but few of the autistic people I work with fall into this narrow niche of autistic adults.

According to their research, those younger age, male gender, higher education, later age of diagnosis and no co-morbid conditions were more likely to have stable employment. However, most autistic adults have shared conditions, many have struggled with education, and many of us were assigned female at birth.

I have been extremely lucky. I opened my own private office and am surrounded by people who know I am autistic and are affirming my struggles. My clients understand that when I go through an autistic burnout and need a break, my colleagues accept my weird tics and lack of social skills, and I don’t need to network because my writing and therapy work speak for me. Over the years, I’ve built a base of clients that I’ve helped and come to me on a regular basis, and I’ve built a body of writing that speaks when I’m unable to speak.

A few weeks ago, I was offered a job I desperately wanted: keynote speaker for an organizational event I feel passionate about. There were many things I was excited to tell him about. However, they wanted me to go through the application process with several other potential speakers, which included interviewing and providing a work history and references.

It’s been a long time since I’ve failed so completely at a work-related task. I flunked the interview. I got nervous and talked about Dungeons and Dragons and other nonsense. I couldn’t remember all the places I’d talked to before, and the idea of ​​contacting someone I’d talked to in the past made me panic.

I love talking and I love doing autism training, but the idea of ​​asking someone to comment on how I had spoken to another human was impossible on countless levels. I would have to contact the person and ask them to do me a favor. I never know how to do this and I always feel like I’m begging or asking.

The nuance of this social interaction is extremely complicated and even if you discover the nuance of this social interaction, you have to bother them to complete the task in a timely manner. I simply had to tell the person who had asked me to speak that I could not meet the required requirements of their process.

This process was incredibly humbling and eye-opening for me. Among the people I work with in support groups and therapy, about 20 percent are happily employed. The rest are stuck in jobs they know they can’t keep, bounce from job to job, or are simply unemployed.

Much of their depression and anxiety stems from the fact that they are unable to meet neurotypical expectations of functioning, nor are they able to fully support and care for themselves. It’s a terrible thing to live with people calling you lazy, stupid, and incompetent when you’re trying your hardest to live up to expectations. This is what living as an autistic adult is often like.

However, even when I was asked to do a job by an autism-affirming organization, I was asked to meet neurotypical expectations of job reliability. If even applying for a job you want for a neuroaffirmative organization can be impossible, how can anyone expect to apply for a job that is not neuroaffirmative and succeed?

There are some success stories out there. I live in Huntsville, Alabama which is a city built by NASA and the military-industrial complex. There are many engineers here and many of them are very successful autistic adults. I am relatively successful and my little failure is not much, but others will have folded and crumbled under the pressure of a neurotypical working world that makes no allowances for autistic people.

However, success stories can teach more than failures. Many autistic adults thrive in their jobs. This is often because they work in places that offer flexible hours, adequate PTO, and quiet, sensitively safe places; they also do not require neurotypical social skills and allow FMLA.

I hire autistic people for my practice with preference because I believe they can achieve so much more than any neurotype. They are brilliant and think outside the box and have made my practice innovative and unique.

I think employers fail to see beyond the boundaries of our differences and hinder not only autistic adults, but our society as well. How much talent and innovation is wasted because of our neurotypical hiring practices or because we can’t let people have some flex time?

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