In our own words: Employment on the spectrum

October 7, 2020

Every October Autism Speaks recognizes National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This national campaign shines a light on the topic of disability employment and celebrates the many contributions of America's workers with disabilities, including autism. 

This year, the U.S. Department of Labor has named the theme of NDEAM as increasing access and opportunity – recognizing the need for inclusion and equality in the workplace. This theme aligns with our mission objective to improve the transition to adulthood; as despite steady progress made over the past decades, there is still so much room for improvement in access to opportunities for members of the autism community. Successfully changing culture to create more inclusive workplaces requires acceptance, understanding and a commitment to supportive employment for people with autism. 

In this feature, hear from six adults on the spectrum who share their varied employment experiences. Matty, Madison, Abigail, Everett, Rachel and Lars relay their thoughts on how we can all contribute to creating more welcoming workplace environments for people on the spectrum.  

Matty - In our own words: Employment on the spectrum

Matty Wallace, 28

Community Volunteer

Pittsburgh, PA

*Matty is nonverbal, so his dad, Mark, was kind enough to share his perspective on his son’s experiences as a volunteer at various local community organizations.

Age of autism diagnosis 

2.5 

Please share your son’s experience with finding and securing work - including any triumphs and struggles. 

After he aged out of school at 21 years old, it was on us as Matty’s parents to make sure we set up our home to help him live a meaningful life as an adult. He is severely impacted and needs round-the-clock care, so we created a home-based program to teach him basic skills that he could use to obtain volunteer work in the community. After that, we reached out to places like the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, Meals on Wheels and local churches to see if they’d give him an opportunity to get involved. Thankfully, they were all very receptive to the idea and it provided Matty with a sense of accomplishment – something he enjoys immensely. He would help with packing boxes, sweeping floors, sorting, things like that – but you could see he took pride in it.  It was great to watch him meet people in the community and form connections. He might have not realized it, but there were always so many people happy to see him when we showed up for work that day. As a dad, that made me feel good. Unfortunately, since COVID hit in March, all of that has stopped and there’s just so much uncertainty.  

As a parent of a child with autism, do you feel like he has access to the same job opportunities as neurotypical people? 

Matty’s completely reliant on us and needs a lot of support, so I understand that there are only certain jobs or tasks that fit his abilities. He never developed language – he has some receptive language but that’s about it. At 12 years old he started having regular seizures, which can be debilitating. He has major trouble sleeping, gastrointestinal issues and an array of other struggles. I’m not the type of person to sugarcoat it and say everything’s great and it hasn’t been tough - it has been, but we will always be here for him and do whatever we can to find that balance of happiness for everyone.  

What are some ways the job market and workplace could be more inclusive and accommodating to people with autism? 

In our experience, the places we reached out to about having Matty volunteer have been very receptive. We’re looking for volunteer work to get him out into the community and give him meaningful work that he can be proud of, and we feel good about how the idea has been received. I think the biggest thing for me is knowing the strengths of your child and trying to maximize them. When you do that, it makes it easier for employers and places of business to utilize their skillset and put them in a position to succeed.  

What advice would you give to other people in the autism community who are ready to embark on a job search or preparing to enter the workforce? 

I’d tell them to figure out what they or their child can do best and then be proactive to find those opportunities. It may seem daunting at the time, but there are so many organizations out there looking for people with unique skillsets. Another piece of advice would be to practice those skills at home over and over until you’re confident it will translate into the workplace. Meaningful opportunities will come when you put in the work and have a strong support system behind you helping you find the right fit. Finding something that engages you or your child is always very important. I know Matty might not have loved every task he was asked to do as a volunteer, but I know he loves the sense of accomplishment that came with it. He was even named “Employee of the Month” at the food bank once. 

 

Madison - In our own words: Employment on the spectrum

Madison, 21, @madisonolson_

Lunch Lady / Dishwasher and Cook

Ellsworth, WI

Age of diagnosis

10

Please share your experience with finding and securing your current job – including any triumphs and struggles.

After I completed Project Search at River Falls Hospital, they helped me find a job. First, I found the job as a lunch lady. The interview made me kind of nervous because It is hard for me to talk to people I don't know and sometimes I don't understand the questions. I had a job coach and that helped a lot to have her with me during the interviews.

As an autistic person, did you feel like you’ve had access to the same job opportunities as neurotypical people?

Yes, because it is hard to tell someone you have autism. But both of my jobs know, so they can understand me better and I can be myself around everyone.

What are some ways the job market and workplace could be more inclusive and accommodating to people with autism?

For employers to be more accepting and not just look at the label of autism or any disability. I hope they would get to know the person and see all they are capable of before making judgments.

What advice would you give to other people in the autism community who are ready to embark on a job search or preparing to enter the workforce?

It will take time to find the right job for you. It is ok be nervous for the interview but be honest. To also share your disability, your strengths and things you struggle with.

 

Abigail - In our own words: Employment on the spectrum

Abigail, 17, @abigail.h26

Seasonal Style Consultant

Cedar Park, TX

Age of diagnosis

3

Please share your experience with finding and securing your current job - including any triumphs and struggles.

I have been searching for work ever since I moved to Texas. On a car ride to Houston, my mom told me that Target was hiring seasonal associates for the Christmas season. The interview went well, and I was hired. The training process went smoothly but learning how to fold properly was difficult for me. The hard part is scheduling work around my busy schedule. I was a high school junior who was in choir and Spanish Club, so those activities take up time after school.

As an autistic person, did you feel like you’ve had access to the same job opportunities as neurotypical people?

Yes, I was assigned to do the same jobs as everyone else in my position. I had to clean out and check the fitting rooms, help guests and communicate with my co-workers and guests.

What are some ways the job market and workplace could be more inclusive and accommodating to people with autism?

I wish that bosses and those who are higher up in the chain of command would have more awareness about challenges that people on the spectrum can face. Everyone is different and we all have different needs, strengths and weaknesses.

What advice would you give to other people in the autism community who are ready to embark on a job search or preparing to enter the workforce?

Employers are willing to hire no matter what you look like! Find your talents and start looking! If you’re in school, let your employers know about any commitments and scheduling conflicts - they can usually schedule around your activities.

 

Everett - In our own words: Employment on the spectrum

Everett, 26, @sweetgentlemen

Health Coach

Memphis, TN

Age of autism diagnosis

22

Please share your experience with finding and securing your current job - including any triumphs and struggles.

I already had a job waiting for me after I graduated from college, so I was lucky in that sense. But one of the struggles I faced was having to be aware of my facial expressions. I had to be aware that people make snap decisions about you based on facial expressions, so it was important that I was aware of that in a professional setting.

As an autistic person, did you feel like you’ve had access to the same job opportunities as neurotypical people?

Yes, I do. I have a college degree in exercise science and feel that I’ve shown that my training has left me as prepared as any other trainer. I did a project in school where I had to put some students through training exercise, but at that time I still wasn’t sure if I’d be ready for the real thing when I got my job. Thankfully, those were just nerves getting the best of me.

What are some ways the job market and workplace could be more inclusive and accommodating to people with autism?

For me, I feel like people with autism can do anything they put their mind to just like anyone else. Just show us how to do our job and we’ll be able to take it from there.

What advice would you give to other people in the autism community who are ready to embark on a job search or preparing to enter the workforce?

Be Patient. Have confidence. Show the world what you can do.

 

Rachel - In our own words: Employment on the spectrum

Rachel, 27, @rachel.shute

Support Worker

Totnes Devon, UK

Age of diagnosis

21

Please share your experience with finding and securing your current job – including any triumphs and struggles.

My job is amazing. I look after the day-to-day running of my clients in a disabled home. Having so many autistic friends, I understand the different levels of disabilities and it helps me at work. I've also worked in care since school, cleaner, care worker, so I understand the need for personal care of vulnerable people who rely on you every day.

As an autistic person, did you feel like you’ve had access to the same job opportunities as neurotypical people?

Personally, yes, I do.

What are some ways the job market and workplace could be more inclusive and accommodating to people with autism?

Change interviews so they suit different people with various abilities and disabilities. Overall more inclusion.

What advice would you give to other people in the autism community who are ready to embark on a job search or preparing to enter the workforce?

Go! Have confidence and expand on the positive but do be honest.

 

Lars - In our own words: Employment on the spectrum

Lars, 56

IT Consultant

London, UK

Age of diagnosis

50

Please share your experience with finding and securing your current job – including any triumphs and struggles.

I was working at a call center after a longer period of unemployment. I was subject to bullying and harassment from colleagues and managers. The company refused to acknowledge that it had to do with my social isolation due to my autism. Later on, an agent who helped me navigate that issue invited me to apply to Auticon, an IT consultancy that only hires consultants on the autism spectrum. They do not interview, they test the applicant’s aptitude, which benefits us on the spectrum. 

As an autistic person, did you feel like you’ve had access to the same job opportunities as neurotypical people?

Definitely not. To begin with, we may not have the same contact network and networking abilities as many neurotypicals, so many opportunities simply do not come our way. Neither do we interview very well, as at least I do not. All the jobs I have had is because I looked for them and got them through my own doing. Never because of contacts or interviewing skills have I landed a job. Too many companies want employees who 'fit in,' and as an autistic person I will just simply not fit in any environment. I have had to leave jobs because of bullying because of this.

What are some ways the job market and workplace could be more inclusive and accommodating to people with autism?

I would suggest that it has to come from the top. The board of directors and the CEO order a change of company culture to be more inclusive and accepting. The second step is to put in the infrastructure to support neurodiverse, and other diverse, employees. The recruitment process should also change to be less focused on structured interviews, which favors fast talkers.

Maybe there could be employment agents specializing in neurodiverse recruitment aiding companies.

What advice would you give to other people in the autism community who are ready to embark on a job search or preparing to enter the workforce?

Primarily, obtain a diagnosis. Never give up, no matter how many people may suggest otherwise. It is a give and take, listen to good advice, but also be true to yourself and focus on your strengths.

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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