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Autism and Employment
By Bart Vulliamy

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Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition of variable severity with lifelong effects that can be recognized from early childhood, chiefly characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behavior.

The latest findings from The UK Office of National Statistics for 2021 estimated that 71% of Autistic adults are unemployed, meaning that only 3 in 10 are in the workforce. Compared to the 84% rate for non-disabled individuals, there is a stark difference.

Autistic and disabled people in employment were also less likely to be employed in professional occupations and in senior roles (27.2% compared to 34.5% for non-disabled people). Furthermore, the majority of employed Autistics are in low-skill level roles that don’t leverage their talents, such as entry level positions in retail or kitchen jobs.

Autistic people are among those disabled people with the lowest employment rate.

As an Autistic person who has worked and struggled with employment and the employment process, I feel that I am both capable and incapable of navigating the system. I have held jobs in retail – low pay/low skill labour positions, failed accommodations, and often overlooked for raises and promotions. A common theme among Autistics who are employed.

Two of the biggest barriers to overcome are the application process and the interview. The application process is now done almost solely with Automatic Tracking Systems, which are used to scan and filter applications, meaning that your application/resume most likely won’t even be seen by a real person.

Once you’re called upon for a job interview, more barriers are placed in front of you which makes sense. The employer/business owner wants to hire the best applicants and make sure that they’ll stay long term. But the ability to perform the job does not mean an Autistic individual cannot perform job because they don’t meet the “prerequisite social conditions”

Interviewers are subconsciously trained to red flag Autistic traits using an unconscious bias called Thin-Slice Judgment. I’ll break it down. Some things that job interviewers evaluate in the interview include strange body language, eye contact and handshake, confidence, rudeness or sloppiness (perceived or otherwise), and a lack of passion for the role. Body language, eye contact, physical touch, and lack of neurotypical communication are common traits in Autistic individuals.

Another common cognitive bias that occurs in job interviews is the Horn Effect, a bias that causes an interviewer’s perception of another to be excessively influenced by a single negative trait. That negative trait could be a miscommunication, a stim, or anxiety or nervousness.

It is understandable that a lot of people will have to give up the job search after many rejections, the reasons for which are simply their own being. Most people will resort to whichever entry level positions they can get and “make do” with what they can find. And, as a result, a lot of Autistic individuals will have to resort to “masking” to try to fit in and hopefully keep their job.

Masking is when a neurodivergent person tries to contort themselves into a box to conform to the societal standards of the community they’re in, especially in employment. Work culture insists that we all fit into the same box to be a good employee. Many Autistics who work will mask, which greatly impacts mental and physical health and causes burnout.

This creates an even more pernicious cycle of underemployment, without systemic societal changes, the underemployment of Autistics will remain a major issue. It is my hope that unconscious bias education about Autism makes its way among recruiters, providing awareness of the potential of the neurodivergent/Autistic community when their workplace can make a few minor adjustments instead of trying to fit everyone in boxes. These adjustments will benefit everyone, not just those living with disabilities, as they’ll create more sustainable and healthier work environments.

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