Autism and Employment: The Need for a Full-Spectrum Perspective

By Jill Escher, President of the National Council on Severe Autism, and Keith Wargo, Chief Executive Officer at Autism Speaks.


a doctor and a florist smiling

As parents actively engaged in the autism community, we've both celebrated successes and navigated challenges related to employment for those on the spectrum. With just 20% of adults with disabilities employed in the U.S., we understand and support the push for Competitive Integrated Employment (CIE). While CIE represents a viable option for many, it's just part of the overall landscape of options for adult services needed by a growing population of very diverse individuals.

For Jill’s son Jonathan, who is 24 and has profound autism, the idea of employment is not a realistic option. He is nonverbal, set in his routines, and can sometimes exhibit volatile behaviors that might damage property or cause significant disruption. It's clear to anyone familiar with Jonathan's needs that an employer isn't likely to hire him for any typical job. Regrettably, the broader push for inclusivity can sometimes gloss over or downplay the significant challenges faced by those with profound needs like Jonathan.

Keith’s journey with his 25-year-old son AJ has revolved around helping him find employment in a world where many employers often fail to recognize the valuable skill sets of autistic workers. During interviews, AJ would frequently be confronted with traditional written or verbal application processes, which can be daunting for someone with autism. The hurdles for AJ to secure employment were less about whether he could perform a job, but more about the biases and misunderstandings that many employers still harbor.

While we acknowledge and celebrate the employment successes within our community, it's essential to recognize that entering the CIE workforce is unrealistic for many autistic adults. In these situations, comprehensive support is vital—not only for the individuals, but also for their primary caregivers and parents, who may juggle work commitments with caregiving roles. With almost 30% of autistic adults experiencing profound autism, this concern cannot be overlooked.

Given that CIE isn't attainable for everyone across the diverse autism spectrum, in shaping an ideal framework for adult services, we propose the following:

  1. Prioritize person-centered principles. Recognizing individual strengths and needs is more valuable than any diagnostic label.
  2. Support programs that bolster job training, application processes, and job retention for autistic adults. At Autism Speaks, we champion initiatives like Workplace Inclusion Now (WIN) to bridge the gap between employers and job seekers. We believe that many people with autism represent untapped talent that will be of value to a wide range of organizations.
  3. The population of adults with autism is growing each year. It is essential to have better data about their scope and characteristics, so we can create policy based on facts and data, and not just abstract ideals. We need better projections about long-term needs from both federal and state sources. 

As we reflect on National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we urge businesses, service providers, communities, and policymakers to take a full-spectrum approach to adults with autism. We are dedicated to ensuring that all autistic adults find pathways to reach their full potential, in the workplace and beyond.

Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of Autism Speaks.