Everyone struggles with challenges at work. For some, being around others for a long time is exhausting. Others may have difficulty getting to work on time, managing their energy throughout the day or focusing when tired. For individuals with autism, workplace environments can present many additional challenges.
As many as 85% of U.S. college grads with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unemployed. This disturbing figure is stark evidence of the barriers people with ASD experience when it comes to finding and maintaining employment and the struggles those with autism can face in the workplace.
Barriers include a cultural stigma about the capabilities of people with autism, a lack of accessibility to proper employment resources for adults on the spectrum, and difficulties in adjusting and finding accommodation in the workplace. However, with the proper tools, individuals with autism can and do have very successful careers.
Can Adults With Autism Work?
Yes, many adults with autism can successfully work with proper training and support. People with ASD can find employment, tailor their environment to their strengths, and develop the strategies and tools needed to thrive with autism in the workplace. Because ASD is diagnosed on a spectrum, every individual with autism has unique strengths and weaknesses.
A few examples of successful individuals with autism include Temple Grandin, Elon Musk, Albert Einstein, and Chris Packham. Most of these people are successful partly because of their place on the spectrum — their brain works differently, giving them the skills they need to succeed in their chosen field.
Autism Struggles in the Workplace
Unemployment and underemployment are major issues facing people with ASD in the United States. In her article on barriers to employment for those with ASD, Marcia Scheiner refers to the path to successful employment as a “two-way street.” Many people with autism know they are fully capable of doing a job well but struggle with the interview process or getting employers to give them a fair shot.
While ASD undoubtedly makes it more difficult for people to succeed in a traditional workplace, cultural assumptions around ASD, as well as a lack of workplace accommodations, have contributed heavily to this problem.
Thankfully, many organizations work to help such individuals find the right job, while more and more workplaces are revamping policies to become more accommodating to individuals with ASD. There are also more services available to help individuals with autism strengthen their social and life skills.
How Does Autism Affect a Person’s Ability to Work?
People with autism face a variety of challenges within the workplace. Every workplace has unspoken social rules, combining needs for certain hard and soft skills in their employees. For individuals with autism spectrum disorder, picking up on and following these expectations can be difficult.
Time management and organizational skills can prove elusive for individuals with executive function issues, common in those with ASD. Work can also be an inescapably social environment, filled with conflict, subtle nuances in conversation and different types of relationships. Navigating this environment can be extremely stressful for some individuals with ASD.
Sensory stimulation on the job site in the form of phones ringing, conversations between coworkers, and other distractions can also prove overwhelming. Sometimes, the strategies individuals with autism use to focus — such as snapping their fingers, moving around or saying repetitive phrases — can be distracting to other coworkers.
These challenges necessitate the development of healthy coping strategies and plans for difficult scenarios. They also require communication with coworkers and bosses to make the workplace a more friendly environment.
Autism and Structure at Work
While autism presents differently in everyone, many adults on the spectrum can find it difficult to stay organized, manage their time and keep track of tasks. For example, it may prove challenging for adults with ASD to plan out tasks ahead of time, or to follow unclear or broad instructions without details.
Many people with autism can excel in their jobs with the proper tools and instruction. One study among people with ASD found that predictable workplace duties were key to success in employment. In other words, once employees find a rhythm with a consistent duty and clear instructions, they are far more likely to succeed.
The use of assistive technology, such as visual or electronic aids, to keep track of details and break large tasks into smaller steps can prove greatly helpful in such situations. Communicating with employers and working together on expectations and communication styles can also make a huge difference.
Autism and Socialization in the Workplace
Socialization and communication with coworkers are other areas that can prove especially challenging for those with ASD. The social experiences of people with ASD vary widely. Here are a few examples of how autism can impact socializing:
- No outward impact but a need to retreat to regather energy after a conversation
- Trouble picking up on tones of voice
- Difficulty with facial expressions
- Constant overthinking of how they appear/are responding to others
- No comprehension of sarcasm or jokes takes everything literally
- Tend to avoid eye contact because it feels uncomfortable
Someone with ASD may also struggle with working as a team player, communicating effectively to solve problems, or generating ideas with coworkers. Because ASD is different for every individual, their experience in the workplace can vary a good deal.
The presence of a mentor or job coach who can look out for employees with ASD and communicate expectations and issues with sensitivity can be helpful. If individuals are comfortable with their ASD being known publicly, fellow employees can work to familiarize themselves with the condition and learn how best to speak with their coworkers should a problem or challenge arise.
Overcoming Distractions and Sensory Issues at Work
People with ASD can also work with their environment, coworkers, and employers to minimize sources of sensory sensitivity. These may include loud noises or distractions, which may prove stressful, anxiety-inducing and disruptive to productivity.
Some people with autism experience meltdowns due to sensory overload in the workplace. In cases where the person with autism feels they may be close to a meltdown, having an exit strategy where one can step out of the office to a less stressful or stimulating environment can be helpful.
Providing the person with ASD a friendly coworker with whom they can discretely communicate or ask for help in such a scenario could likewise prove beneficial. The coworker could also help others better understand and support the needs of their fellow worker with ASD.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for overcoming workplace challenges with autism, but there are numerous helpful strategies. These are a few things that can help, and many of them can be respectfully initiated by individuals with autism:
- Finding and taking advantage of employment resources for people on the spectrum
- Having a job coach or mentor
- Working with assistive technology
- Communicating needs with employers and coworkers
- Practicing job-specific skills and associated “soft skills”
Employers can use resources such as the National Autism Society’s guide to employing people with autism to educate themselves further and work to improve their workplaces for individuals with ASD. Individuals with autism can also pursue treatment options that help them identify strengths and develop the skills and healthy coping strategies necessary for successful employment.
Invest in Your Career With Spectrum of Hope
Spectrum of Hope has over a decade of experience in providing autism treatment services for people with ASD of all ages in the greater Houston area. If you’re looking for tips on holding a job with autism and navigating autism in the workplace, we’re here for you.
We offer Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, which starts where you are and can help you build stronger independent living and social skills. At Spectrum of Hope, we can help you move toward your future goals. Contact us today to learn more!