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Workplace Challenges for Individuals with Autism

autism in the workplace

Content in this blog post:

Proper Training and Support are Key

As many as 85 percent of U.S. college grads with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unemployed.[i] This disturbing figure is stark evidence of the barriers people with ASD face when it comes to finding and maintaining employment and the struggles those with autism can face in the workplace. These 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.

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.

How Does Autism Affect Ability to Work?

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.” 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. The same goes for a lack of properly funded and staffed vocational programs and similar resources, which people with ASD rely on to get a foot in the door.[ii] There are options for employers to better deal with autism in the workplace.

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.[iii] Thankfully, many organizations work to help such individuals find the right job, while more and more workplaces are revamping policy to become more accommodating to individuals with ASD. Autism Speaks provides a comprehensive list of businesses, tools, and organizations working towards these goals – along with their helpful Employment Tool Kit – here. The U.S Department of Labor also offers more resources here.

What Are Common Challenges for Individuals with Autism?

People with autism face a variety of challenges within the workplace. Many people associate work with stress, expectations around productivity, and social situations which can be overwhelming or frustrating. For individuals with autism spectrum disorder, these difficulties are often magnified. 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, with its own unwritten rules and customs which can be difficult to navigate for anyone, especially those dealing with ASD.

Sensory stimulation on the job site in the form of phones ringing, conversations between coworkers, and other distractions can also prove overwhelming. 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.

Tools and Strategies for Productivity 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. 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.[iv] Employers should be made aware of employee needs in these areas.

Many people with autism are capable of excelling in their jobs with the proper tools and instruction. One study among people with ASD found that predictable workplace duties were key for success in employment. In other words, once employees find a rhythm with a consistent duty with clear instructions, they are far more likely to succeed.[v] Communicating this with employers, and working together to find the proper match in terms of expectations and communication style, may be part of a wider strategy in tailoring one’s work to one’s strengths.

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. One person could have no outward difficulties socializing, but may have a serious need to retreat and regather their energy after a conversation. Another may have difficulty picking up on tones of voice or facial expressions, or in understanding friendly banter, jokes, or sarcasm.[vi]

Someone with ASD may also struggle with working as a team player, communicating effectively to solve problems, or generating ideas with coworkers. The presence of a mentor or job coach who can look out for the new employee and communicate expectations and issues with sensitivity can be helpful. If one is 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 coworker 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 sensory meltdowns as a result of stress, fear, or overstimulation. 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. Finding and taking advantage of employment resources for people on the spectrum, having a job coach or mentor, working with one’s environment and assistive technology, communicating needs with one’s employers and coworkers, and practicing job-specific skills and associated “soft skills” can all help. Employers can use resources such as the National Autism Society’s guide to employing people with autism to further educate themselves and work to improve their workplaces for individuals with ASD. Individuals with autism can also pursue treatment options which help them identify strengths and develop the skills and healthy coping strategies necessary for successful employment.

Learn the Keys to Holding a Job With Autism

Spectrum of Hope has over a decade of experience in providing autism treatment services for people on the spectrum 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, read our blog post.

If you have questions about autism services for a child, teen or adult, call now (281) 894-1423. You can also check your insurance benefits and start an admission by clicking the button to the right. We're here for you.

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