It’s no secret that being on the spectrum can come with its fair share of challenges, especially for children trying to fit into school life, and adults just starting out in the workforce. These are massive adjustments that often require an understanding and skillset that can seem antithetical to autism, and many jobs and industries are not a good match for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Autism develops differently from person to person. Terms such as low-functioning and high-functioning can help contextualize how someone with ASD might perform in the majority of jobs, but it isn’t an accurate reflection of how autism truly develops.
A Complex Problem
For some, the symptoms they live with are quite mild. For others, they’re quite severe. But context is important. Individuals may be low functioning in a traditional sense, but can learn to thrive within a specific ruleset, or given the right training.
Through professional intervention, they may learn to slowly function individually despite having issues with tasks that appear simple on the surface – like picking out clothes for the day or brushing teeth – but they may continue to struggle with similar tasks that are physically uncomfortable or require planning. However, even in such cases, working with a professional might reveal specific behavior hinting at some sort of ability or skill later in life – like sorting items, memorizing numbering systems, doing data entry, simple manual labor, or cleaning.
Identifying what a child can and cannot do, where they excel and where they falter, and which skills come easy to them vs. which skills are hardest to learn can help them identify potential jobs for the future.
Good and Bad Jobs for Autism
In 1999, renowned professor Temple Grandin published a short list to help individuals with autism and parents of children with autism better understand what kind of jobs best mesh with the condition, and which jobs may prove to be exceptionally challenging.
She divided the professions listed within the article between bad jobs, jobs good for visual thinkers, jobs good for non-visual thinkers, and jobs good for non-verbal individuals. The goal was to help provide a better picture of how individuals with ASD may not only enter the workplace, but potentially thrive within specific positions and occupations that may allow them to take full advantage of their unique talents.
Running themes within the article were that jobs that require multitasking, a capable short-term memory, good social skills, and a high tolerance for stress were generally ill-suited to autism. This is because many individuals with autism struggle when overwhelmed with information, cannot think clearly when directed to split their attention and focus on several things at once, and generally perform poorly when pressured. Occupations such as cashiers, waiters, short order cooks, air traffic controllers, taxi dispatchers, front desk workers and receptionists were listed as being poor choices for individuals on the spectrum.
On the other hand, a variety of jobs may allow individuals with ASD to thrive depending on what they personally excel at. These include jobs that require powers of visualization and troubleshooting such as automobile mechanic, lab technician, animal trainer, drafting (architecture and engineering), computer programming, web design, magazine layout, photography, and carpentry. An attention to detail and great long-term memory serves well in inventory control, quality assurance, bug testing, journalism, library science, accounting, statistics, and more.
Focusing on Strengths, Mitigating Weaknesses
Working while on the spectrum requires an awareness of one’s condition, both in terms of strengths as well as limitations. If you struggle with a hectic environment, confrontations, and social skills, then taking on jobs that require a high tolerance and ability in all three categories may be a poor choice.
On the other hand, there are many job opportunities and careers that do not require good social skills, constant stress, or lots of client interactions. Parents of children with ASD should try to encourage their children to try different things. They should try to recognize a pattern in what their child enjoys most, and work with professionals to nurture those skills.
Placement and work training programs aimed specifically at people with disabilities and people with ASD can be a boon for a young adult getting into the job market. These programs aim to help work with individuals to identify their strengths and weaknesses and match them to businesses looking to hire people with specific skillsets.
Identifying, Mitigating, and Avoiding Sources of Stress
Stress management is a critical portion of maintaining employment while on the spectrum. External sources of stress relief are particularly important, whether these are familial ties or friends and coworkers. As with anyone seeking a healthy work-life balance, it’s important to teach individuals with autism how to draw and maintain boundaries. Keeping work at work and using time away from work to recuperate and recover is important. These boundaries can help reduce burnout and avoid the toll that long-term stress takes on people.
Aside from establishing and nurturing a support system of people to speak to and rely on, it’s important to develop interests outside of work that can be turned to in order to relax. Helping individuals with ASD better understand the end-goal for their job and giving them specific goals to work towards can also help them feel less lost within a position and better understand what it is they should be doing, and what it is they’re working towards.
Working with Autism
It’s important to remember that being a part of the workforce isn’t just about fighting against the issues that autism present, but it’s also about learning how to work with autism, in every sense. While living on the spectrum is a disability in many cases, there are still areas in which a person with autism can excel. Even in the face of severe issues such as nonverbal autism, with the right support and a management that understands the challenges that may lie ahead, people can still hold and maintain a useful position in an organization.
As it becomes clear how many Americans are born and live with symptoms of autism, it becomes important for employers and managers in all industries to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of a person on the spectrum and consider where they might do well. Beyond charity, employing individuals on the spectrum in the right positions can be an incredible boon for many businesses, and going forward, a significant portion of the workforce will need to seek employment despite struggling with certain tasks and skills.
When it comes to helping individuals cope with the challenges of the workplace and find their own spot in society, it’s important to seek help early. Professional intervention can help children begin to work on skills that they might otherwise struggle more severely with in the future, and while autism is not ‘curable’ (and doesn’t need to be), getting professional help early on can help you and your child better understand autism and how to live with it.