Merging talent with opportunities: New thinking about the autistic workforce

By Dave Kearon | October 3, 2019
autism jobs, special needs jobs, jobs for people with disabilities

Dave Kearon provides insight on autistic employment in this country as well as strategies for increasing workforce diversity to include employees with disabilities. Dave is director of adult services at Autism Speaks.

Autism Speaks is proud to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This is a national campaign each October to shine a light on disability employment issues and celebrate the many contributions of America's workers with disabilities, including autism.

This year’s NDEAM theme is The Right Talent, Right Now. The theme reflects the urgency felt by many autistic job seekers. At a time of low unemployment and increasing global competition for talent, many employers are struggling to identify qualified job candidates to help grow and sustain their businesses. The smartest ones are turning to a largely untapped labor pool: people with autism and other disabilities. But for more than 50,000 autistic youth who turn 18 each year, plus millions of autistic adults, this shift can’t happen fast enough.

Where we are

Research shows that:

  • More than half of young adults with autism remain unemployed and unenrolled in higher education in the two years after high school. This is a lower rate than that of young adults in other disability categories, including learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and speech-language impairment.
  • Autistic people who use state-funded vocational rehabilitation programs often leave these programs with low-wage work, putting them well below the poverty level.
  • Nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job.

Part of the problem is a narrow focus within the autism hiring movement, which is still largely limited to tech roles and in and outside of tech industries. We celebrate the many autism employment initiatives focused on high tech, and we continue to support their growth and replication. These efforts help drive new conversations and new thinking about hiring and employment practices. For example, employers have learned to rely less on traditional job interviews for autistic candidates as they can be extremely challenging for many people on the spectrum.

Employers also have demonstrated a sound business case for hiring autistic workers. These lessons are important and confirm:

  • Positive changes in corporate culture, including improved management and communication skills that benefit all employees as well as improved employee engagement and morale
  • Improved innovation, including the sharing of new ideas, points of view and methods of problem-solving
  • Improved process management due to enhanced abilities of neurodiverse employees to spot and report irregularities and inefficiencies
  • Improved employee retention and fulfillment of positions that traditionally have hard-to-find skill sets and high turnover
  • Access to high-level talent and a workforce that tends to have exemplary attendance, efficiency, accuracy and safety records
  • Positive publicity about hiring autistic employees

Autism Speaks is working to transfer the lessons learned in technology jobs to expand opportunities for autistic candidates in non-tech settings. We’re making this transition by working with employment partners in areas like retail and manufacturing. Employers in every business sector benefit from diversity in the workforce. Autistic workers—like other employees—contribute unique interests and skill sets to any workplace. Diversifying employment to include people with autism simply increases the overall talent pool that all industries can tap.

Where we want to be

Next steps to further employment opportunities for workers on the spectrum include:

  • Learning from existing employers and replicating success across industries. Large and small organizations actively employ autistic workers. Larger companies include SAP, Microsoft, DXC Technology, EY and JPMorgan Chase. Small businesses include AutonomyWorks, Aspiritech and Ultranauts. Lessons learned from these organizations can help foster autism employment initiatives elsewhere. Currently 20 companies are part of the Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable hosted by Disability:IN. We need thousands of companies of all sizes and from all sectors to become part of this initiative.
  • Create opportunities for people across the autism spectrum, including people without high school diplomas or college degrees. We know that autistic people have a wide range of interests and abilities. Employment opportunities should reflect this diversity.
  • Improve the pipeline to autistic talent for employers and employees. More and more businesses are genuinely interested in hiring autistic workers. But they struggle to find candidates. There’s no direct avenue to recruit autistic employees. Likewise, it’s a challenge for autistic job seekers to figure out which companies are targeting neurodiverse candidates in which jobs and in which locations. It’s time to work for businesses, universities, community colleges, high school transition programs, local service providers and autistic candidates to work as partners to improve results on both sides of the employment equation.

Autism Speaks aims to facilitate these efforts to merge the right autistic talent with the right employment opportunities now and in the future. Success means transforming the workplace through acceptance, understanding and employment of people with autism.

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.

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