The Power of One Challenge

The numbers don’t lie. They continue to tell the story of disappointment and frustration related to autistic employment. Like the sad refrain of a heart breaking melody, the weight can become unbearable if we focus only on present outcomes. The narrative is all too familiar, autistic adults just can’t work in regular job environments because of various sensory challenges which preclude them from being productive. Additionally, the present story line strongly suggests communication limitations serve as an impenetrable barrier from meaningful employment and personal satisfaction. We have the choice to continue to accept the status quo – that is autistic adults are broken and limited, or embrace a future filled with hope and boundless possibilities. Personally, I choose the latter. Our legacy is at stake here as we will be evaluated by future generations not only for personal accomplishments, but more importantly, for the quality of life we created for others. The extent of our charity should not just touch the lives of those like us, but people who are different as well.

Unemployment among autistic adults is a chronic problem throughout the global community. There is a vast disconnect between autistic talent and employers’ perceptions which continue to yield unflattering results. Presently there is an 80% unemployment rate for adults on the spectrum during a time when 50,000 teens are transitioning to adulthood annually. The aforementioned statistics are being generous in light of numerous studies indicating an even higher unemployment rate for autistic adults. Matters are even more disheartening in consideration of the job rate among college educated autistic adults. Sadly, 85% of white collar professionals on the autism spectrum are either unemployed or underemployed. Ostensibly, intelligence is not the precluding factor keeping so many gifted people from assimilating into the workforce. What are the reasons for such an abysmal representation of autism in the marketplace? More importantly, what measurable steps can be taken to improve the autism employment rate and where do we begin.

The logical starting point is acknowledging the fact that we indeed have a problem. Moreover, the problem doesn’t just lie with autistic families or individuals diagnosed with autism, but society at large. We have a collective responsibility to offer supportive environments that uplift, encourage, nurture, and develop all citizens to be their best. The focal point, up to this point, seems to emphasize changing the person with autism to fit into the job environment and make any changes necessary to adapt. Clearly, this approach is not working as evidenced by continuing efforts to create more socialization programs at the college, and even high school levels. While social skills are an integral part of the job experience, communication still reigns supreme. The axis upon which relationships are built is solid communication. For autistic adults, communication with others is often times difficult – but not impossible.

The demands of the work environment are only heightened when there are challenges along the way that impede trust and understanding. It all starts, and ends, with communicating intent and purpose in order to understand the grand objective. As a society, we have failed people with autism in a futile attempt to change them and how they interpret the world around them. Today’s workplace serves as a microcosm of general society in that the same issues impacting autistic employees on the job, translate to other areas of life. In essence, we have tried to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole. In order to improve the success rate for autistic workers, we need more square holes – that’s to say there has to be more companies of all sizes willing to break out of the traditional norm. Employers must get better at communicating with autistic adults and understanding their needs, before expecting them to buy in to the company’s broader mission.

In the spirit of full transparency, there is an element of fear preventing many companies from embracing autistic employees. It is driven by a number of factors, but primarily misunderstanding and stereotypes are the culprits. We can never fully understand how another person processes information or their response to environmental stimuli. However, we can get to know one autistic person at a time. This is the hurdle companies must surmount before we will see a significant change in both the hiring of and retention rates of autistic employees. There must be one person willing to create a strong communicative work space where autistic workers can thrive without fear of being shamed or even worse terminated. We have the power to change the current course of autistic employment, while presenting opportunities of fulfillment and hope.

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