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  • Posted October 2, 2020

A Guide to Autism and Full-Time Employment

When I was growing up, I didn’t have any particular career ambitions, except for working part-time in a video game store so I could stay in Connecticut.  That mindset was challenged upon aging out of the school system and becoming aware of the rate of employment for autistic adults.  Seeing the unemployment statistics and the rates of isolation hardened my resolve: I refused to become part of that statistic.

I ultimately got my wish of full-time employment during the summer of 2020, when I was hired full-time as the Autism Transition Coordinator for Planning Across the Spectrum.  It was the culmination of a years-long journey in the field of autism advocacy, where I discovered a passion for transportation and got my driver’s license.  In fact, my new position combined my previous roles as an events facilitator and transportation coach into one job.  Letting go of my past job as a job coach was difficult, but it was a necessary step towards achieving my goals.

At first, I was uncertain where this new route would take me or what I should expect working full-time.  Very little information about full-time employment in the autism population exists, perhaps because (at least according to one study), only 16% of autistic people hold a full-time job.  But now, a few months into my full-time job, I’ve come to learn a lot about what it takes to thrive in a 9-to-5 environment.  Drawing from both observations and my own experiences, here are some simple things employers can do to help their autistic employees flourish.  I’ll also be sharing some tips for autistic employees that have helped me succeed in the workforce.

For Employers:

1.) Don’t buy into stereotypes: Ever hear how all autistic people like working in closed environments and are destined for STEM? Throw those stereotypes out the window, because they’re not true for everyone. The fact of the matter is that autistic people can excel in any number of job fields, not just STEM.   Some of us (myself included) even thrive in fields that require a lot of socializing, public speaking, and rapport with clients, like social work and special education!  The point is that autistic people can do the same jobs as neurotypical people, and they shouldn’t be overlooked due to not fitting stereotypes.  Failing to acknowledge that is not only ableist, but disrespectful.

2.) Maximize productivity by bringing special interests into the workplace: Special interests are hobbies or topics that autistic people have an intense interest in.   If you know about your autistic employee’s special interests – whether it be movies, cars, or video games – consider how you can integrate it into their tasks.  For example, one of my special interests is transportation, so my employer gave me an opportunity to do a driving workshop with CTFSN.  That workshop led to a collaboration between The Next Street and Planning Across the Spectrum, so my special interest ended up benefitting everyone at both companies.  Eventually, my passion for transportation was the impetus for transitioning to a full-time job.  Having my special interest as a motivator upped the quality of my work and helped to make my contributions more noticeable.

3.) Accommodate sensory differences and challenges: Sensory differences can lead to heightened anxiety and meltdowns in autistic people, so it’s crucial to accommodate for them in the workplace.  If your employee has disclosed their diagnosis to you, the first thing you should ask them is what stimuli they are particularly sensitive to.  These may include certain kinds of lights, textures, sounds, and smells.  Knowing what their triggers are ahead of time (and the accommodations they may need to handle sensory overload) can prevent misunderstandings down the line and make the workplace more comfortable for all parties.  If you are in an office building that most of your employees use, consider letting each employee customize their spaces as needed to decrease the risk of sensory overload.  Whether that means dimming bright fluorescent lights, using headphones and listening to music as they complete tasks, or stim toys at their desks.   All these things lead to a more productive and inclusive work environment.

4.) Communicate clearly: Many autistic individuals tend to interpret things literally and may not know how to respond to figures of speech. For this reason, clear and unambiguous communication makes a world of difference.  Choose a communication method that works for both you and the employee so that they can clarify expectations or any vague instructions.  This may look like a weekly review of tasks, or clarification emails as needed.  The key is to make these one-on-one communications a regular part of the work routine, and to encourage your autistic employee to advocate for their own needs.  Moreover, if any changes arise, let your autistic employees know immediately.  Sudden breaks from routine can provoke significant anxiety in autistic people, which in turn wreaks havoc on their ability to complete tasks.

5.) Boost morale with regular workshops and events: Want to increase the morale of your employees and promote inclusivity? Workshops can bring in new opportunities to enhance your workers, which improves their work.

6.) Don’t skimp out on employer benefits: Your employee benefit package should help everyone, but autistic people often need additional benefits. To that end, we offer consulting services for employers where we help tailor your benefits system towards autistic and neurodiverse employees.  We are licensed in all 50 states and work directly with providers and your HR department to develop various supports (including transportation and ABLE accounts), in addition to training and workshops.

For Employees:

1.) Prepare yourself for a change of pace Going from part time work to full time employment can be jarring. Even when I mentally preparing myself for this change, it took some time to get used to. You may have to work fast and communicate with many people virtually, which can be rewarding but a bit overwhelming at first.  This is where researching a position and knowing what the workflow is like beforehand can be incredibly helpful.

2.) Determine whether to disclose: Disclosure is an incredibly subjective thing, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. On one hand, disclosing your diagnosis to an employer can help you get services and accommodations that you may need to perform well in the workplace.  On the other hand, disclosure carries certain risks due to the stigma surrounding autism.  Ultimately, the decision rests with you.  Keep in mind that you can disclose at any time, for any reason – even if you don’t feel comfortable disclosing now, the option is always there.

3.) Be honest with your sensory needs: If you need to bring up your sensory differences with your employer, do it as soon as possible.  While having your employer approach you about it first is ideal, that won’t always happen.  In those cases, it is your responsibility to advocate for yourself and speak up.  I am upfront about my needs and have developed various strategies that my employer approves, like playing video game music/podcasts to keep me focused, and having a plush toy in my office in case I need to play around with something.  If I am getting too antsy, I let my employer know that I need to go for a quick walk.  I communicate my needs all the time so as to prevent any misunderstandings.  So long as you don’t cross any boundaries, you should advocate for your needs.

4.) Let small commitments go if you don’t have enough time for them: When I was working part-time, I would spend the extra free time I had making lots of commitments and honing my skills. Fast forward to now, and I’ve realized one of those hard truths of adulthood: those small commitments add up over time.  Since I hold a major position at my company, I get more nervous about my busy schedule, and have days where I feel exhausted.  There are times I feel like I can take down everything to get the energy I seek, but that is self-destructive.  The takeaway for this is that you might have to let small commitments go to maximize your energy towards the things that matter to you more.

Full time employment can be daunting, but it’s more than possible for autistic people to thrive in a 9-5 setting.  Please note that the solutions in this article may not be the solution for every single autistic person out there, and that other methods are still as valid.  Everyone has different needs, and those needs should be respected.

I hope these tips serve as the first step to help employers understand ways they can help their autistic employees.  I also hope that employees will have a better idea of what to expect when they transition to full-time work.  And if you still feel a little lost or don’t know what to do, Planning Across the Spectrum