Career Paths for Autistic Students & Adults
As the world begins to understand autism better, more schools and employers are finding ways to support people on the autism spectrum. Autistic individuals can be bright, creative, diligent employees, but they need support from employers to find the right structure.
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may struggle to complete certain job tasks, express themselves clearly to coworkers, follow implied rules and regulations, and advocate for their needs for a distraction-free environment. There is a huge range in the needs of autistic individuals in the workplace. The severity of the disorder indicates how much support an individual needs.
Autism & Employment
Data collected from around the world shows that the majority of adults who have autism are either underemployed or unemployed.
People who have autism struggle with behaviors, social situations, and communication, and this can make finding and keeping a job difficult. Estimates report that up to 85% of people who have autism have difficulty finding or maintaining a job.
Autistic individuals face unique challenges with employment. Due to social and communication issues, they may have difficulty interviewing well, working with team members, and understanding customer needs.
Most employment programs for people with disabilities were not designed for autistic individuals, but rather for those with more traditional physical disabilities, such as blind and deaf individuals. As a result, many employers don’t know quite where these employees fit into the workplace, and many autistic individuals end up in jobs for which they are overqualified.
While people with autism still face many challenges with securing employment, companies are starting to better understand the benefits of working with autistic employees. Many organizations have formed neurodiversity programs , which focus on hiring, training, integrating, and supporting neurodiverse employees.
There are also many advocacy programs, dedicated to helping people with autism secure employment and integrate into the workplace. Advocacy organizations like The Arc and Easterseals help individuals with autism overcome barriers to employment to find and retain jobs that work well for their strengths.
Levels of Autism Impact How Each Person Functions in Certain Workplace Environments
The severity of a person’s ASD will influence what kinds of jobs they can effectively perform.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) adjusted the levels of autism severity in this latest edition. The current clinical understanding involves these levels:
- Level 1, requiring support: This has sometimes been called mild or high-functioning autism. People in this group require very little help in their daily lives, but autism will show up in some areas, such as their struggle to understand some social situations, anxiety caused by feeling outside of social groups or not picking up cues, stress when routines change, and feeling like they only want to do some things their way.
- People at this level can maintain normal or average employment and social relationships.
- Level 2, requiring substantial support: Considered the mid-range for people who have autism, those with this diagnosis typically have more difficulty with social skills, and their challenges may be more noticeable. Some people in this group may not communicate verbally, or if they do, conversations tend to be short and limited to a specific topic.
- They will need help from professionals, like applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapists and technicians, to understand social cues and context, so they can enjoy more interactions. They may struggle to maintain eye contact, using the right tone of voice is difficult, and facial expressions may be harder to read.
- Restrictive and repetitive behaviors will be more prevalent. If regular patterns get interrupted, the person will have a harder time communicating and be very uncomfortable.
- Level 3, requiring very substantial support: This is the most severe form of autism spectrum disorder. People who receive this diagnosis need extensive support for daily activities, social interactions, communication, and motor function. Restrictive, repetitive, and even compulsive or obsessive behaviors get in the way of them functioning as independent, successful adults.
- Some people in this category can communicate with words, but many do not. People who are level 3 struggle with unexpected events. They experience sensory input differently, either being too sensitive to some sensations like textures or sight, or not noticing some sensations like sounds. Motor skills are also impaired to the point that many will need help with daily activities, like getting dressed.
Many adults do not receive a diagnosis of autism until they are well into their teenage or adult years. Others may receive the diagnosis when they are young children, but they spend their school years struggling to learn skills to keep up with neurotypical peers.
With such a wide range of challenges and abilities among people on the autism spectrum, career counselors, friends, family, and educators need to use a tailored approach for each individual. Understanding the individual’s strengths and weaknesses is vital to helping them identify and achieve career goals.
The Personal Job Map for Autistic Adults Seeking Employment
People with autism benefit from making a personal job map. This type of map can be created in a therapy session or group. The therapist can then help the client understand the next steps for applying for and getting a job.
The process of making a job map looks like this:
- Brainstorm ideas. A job map starts with brainstorming the person’s interests. People with autism may feel that their obsessive interest in specific, narrow subjects limits them when they try to get into college or enter a career field. However, this focus and attention can be a huge benefit when it comes to certain occupations. You simply have to understand how the fascination fits with specific aspects of the job.
- List areas of interest. The person then lists the best things about these areas of interest. For example, if their interest is drawing, they should list what they like about the process of drawing, what they like to draw, and what keeps them interested in drawing those things.
- List as many of these as possible. They can be important items to look for in job postings.
- Identify personal triggers. Pinpointing individual triggers in certain environments will help the individual to understand what sort of career might work best for them. Certain jobs are tied to certain environments.
- For example, a lawn maintenance worker uses with loud, heavy tools in an outdoor environment that might be filled with scents and bright light. Someone who works in software engineering will likely have a desk job, so they sit down all day, work with several other people, use verbal communication skills, and deal with tight or last-minute deadlines.
- Come up with solutions. Once these potential problems are listed, brainstorm some solutions. These may be obvious solutions for autistic individuals who have managed going to school, participating in social activities, going to ABA therapy sessions, and other situations.
- Some autistic individuals may have lower sensory sensitivity to some issues like loud noises, so they may find they can work well in a loud environment, like a construction site. Some benefit from the structure of deadlines with enough peace and quiet to work alone, so they may thrive more in desk jobs.
- List non-negotiables. In a separate category, list issues that are musts. For example, if fluorescent lights are too distracting and painful, there are some jobs that the person simply cannot perform.
- It is very important to know these upfront. It prevents autistic individuals from applying to jobs that won’t be a good fit for their skillset or that will be in destructive environments for them.
- Understanding these issues also helps the person to process the environment when they go into a job interview. They can then more easily determine if the workspace is a good fit for their needs and whether they need to ask for accommodations.
- Determine the next steps. This final piece of the process involves a list called course of action or realization. This is essentially a summation of everything learned in the exercises above.
- The information can help someone with autism understand that they have a great number of skills and abilities that can help them to build a successful career. It also highlights specific issues that may be workable in certain types of employment, but may preclude them from other types of work.
- The person can then determine if they need specific skills training to enter the workforce.
These lists help to make the process of getting a job seem much more manageable. Rather than feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, or unprepared, people with autism who start by creating these lists can see that they have a lot of value to bring to a large number of jobs.
There are other steps a person with autism can take that help with their job search.
- Make a list of places of employment that are near public transit or within walking distance.
- Make a list of personal contacts who could potentially help with finding an entry-level job. These first jobs can jumpstart a career.
- Find places that teach job skills like how to interview and how to write cover letters.
- Fill out several job applications just to practice the process.
- Get help through available resources, such as advocacy groups.
Specific Jobs That Work Well for Adults With Autism
People with autism may worry that they do not have enough job or social skills to enter the workforce successfully. However, many autistic individuals have incredible skills, dedication, and focus, which employers look for in candidates. Certain areas of employment may work better for autistic individuals than other fields .
For example, someone with autism may be a strong visual learner and thinker. They see the world literally, through images, rather than understanding it through speech or words. Metaphorical speech, in particular, tends to be difficult for people with autism to discern.
People with autism who are strong visual thinkers are often a good fit for jobs in these areas:
- Computer programming
- Software or web design
- Computer troubleshooting
- Hardware repair
- Small appliance repair
- Equipment design
- Handicrafts, such as carving, ceramics, or jewelry-making
- Commercial art
- Animal training
- Veterinary medicine
- Laboratory medicine
- Building trades, like repairs
- Building maintenance
- Factory maintenance
While many people with autism respond well to visual images and work well with careers that use this skill, other people with autism are great with numbers, facts, or music. People with this skillset may excel in these professions:
- Library science professional
- Reference librarian
- Copy editor
- Inventory manager
- Taxi driver
- Musical instrument repair and tuning professional
- Laboratory technician
- Bank teller
- Filing clerk
- Telemarketing professional
Developing Soft Skills
Soft skills are attributes that make someone valuable in a variety of jobs. There are six core soft skills:
- Attitude and enthusiasm
- Communication skills
- Networking abilities
- Problem-solving and critical thinking skills
These soft skills are valuable for anyone to have, but they are often areas where people with autism struggle. As a result, these skills are often developed in ABA therapy sessions.
Adults with autism can always return to ABA therapy, or find a new career-specific ABA therapist, to help them understand the soft skills needed to do well at work. An ABA therapist can design sessions around skills that are needed to interview well, helping clients learn to present themselves in a professional and socially appropriate manner. Clients can also learn how to express themselves better, so they can communicate well on the job and advocate for themselves when necessary.
Resources to Help Autistic Students & Young Adults Find Work
People with autism spectrum disorder deserve to get jobs that support their needs and maximize use of their skills.
These resources can help autistic individuals start training for the workplace and find employment:
- Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP): This is a federal agency that promotes and coordinates policies with employers at all levels of government, including local and county levels, to help people with disabilities like autism secure employment and get the support they need after being hired.
- University and College Resources: Young adults with autism who are completing a college or trade school degree will benefit from speaking with campus resource groups to help them find employment once they have graduated. There are usually programs in universities or colleges that help students find employment after graduation. Counselors guide students toward degree-based jobs.
- Mental and behavioral health resources are also available to help students manage stress while on the hunt for a job.
- Hire Autism: This is a jobs portal similar to many other job-searching sites, but it is designed specifically to help people with autism find jobs that lead to long-lasting careers.
- Autism Speaks: This organization is committed to help individuals with autism in all aspects of life, and they offer resources to aid autistic individuals as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. Since resources vary by state, the organization has tailored information to residents of each state, providing information on state agencies that can help.
- Employer Assistance and Research Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) : This organization supports employers in their initiatives to hire and retain more employees with disabilities, including autism. They feature a listing of companies with neurodiversity hiring initiatives.
- Easterseals: This nonprofit organization offers assistance to individuals with disabilities, including people with autism. They also serve seniors and veterans. Their resources include job skills training programs for people with disabilities, career exploration and job placement services, and school-to-work transition assistance.
- Autism Now: Created by The Arc, this site offers many resources to help individuals with autism plan for, secure, and retain employment.
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- On the Job. The Arc of the United States.