There is a stunningly high running unemployment rate for those with autism. Why are we so unable to get work? What is it about hiring, working, and maintaining a job that differs for those who are on the spectrum? Here’s my personal experience.
We have odds stacked against us, but I choose to view this as life driving me in a better direction. This is not a poor me story. I run my own business for several reasons, and it is doing well. This is one of them.
To open a discussion about employment rates and autism, let’s start with a few….
Around 2.2% of adults in the US have autism spectrum disorder. That’s 2.2% of the potential American workforce.
Of those adults with autism, only about 25% are fully employed. As with any disorder, there is a range of severity and expression leading to a spectrum of functional outcomes. Some adults with autism will never be functionally able to be fully employed due to the severity of the disease state. However, there are many others who have relatively minor differences or in some cases minor social or functional impairments who are able and willing to contribute to society through full employment.
Adults with autism AND a college degree have an even lower percentage at 15% full employment. That means that roughly 6 out of every 7 American adults with autism who are skilled, motivated, and intelligent enough to achieve a college degree remain unemployed.
The United States is currently in the middle of a labor shortage for a number of reasons; most of which are beyond the scope of this blog. However, it would seem that we have a willing, able, and educated portion of the workforce that is being consistently underutilized.
So, where is this disconnect coming from?
Those with autism are conditioned to fit in from the start. Everybody is; so we’re not special in that case. Societal messages tell us that if we’re different, if we think or believe outside the mainstream, or if we behave out of the norm in any way; then we are odd, potentially a threat, and don’t belong.
Look at the words coined to describe us: neurodivergent (vs. neurotypical), “high functioning autistic”, neuro minority, neurodiverse, neurodivergent, special needs, disabled, or impaired. These descriptors conjure impressions of sick, broken, or less-than.
Aiyana Bailin discusses terminology in her 2019 Scientific American article, “To my dismay, Simon Baron-Cohen’s recent article “The Concept of Neurodiversity is Dividing the Autism Community” perpetuates a common misunderstanding of the neurodiversity movement: that it views autism as a difference but not a disability. Baron-Cohen presents the issue as one of the opposing sides: the medical model, which sees autism as a set of symptoms and deficits to be cured or treated, and the neurodiversity model, which he believes ignores any disabling aspects of autism. Unfortunately, this confuses the neurodiversity movement with the social model of disability, and it is an incomplete understanding of the social model at that.”
We are pushed to conform to societal norms. People try to “fix” us from the start. Depending on the severity, our tendencies are misunderstood, stereotyped, misread, and stigmatized. If we don’t reciprocate communication, mirror emotions, transmit appropriate feelings in our facial expressions, or make eye contact, people make assumptions. While these assumptions are a typical and very human response to what is perceived as aberrant behavior, the consequences of misunderstanding here can be tragic.
When this occurs, we are sent to therapists and given education to get fixed. If we don’t mirror what everybody else does, a lack of understanding here can lead to outright rejection of the person. When there are behaviors used by those with autism to self-soothe, such as stims, the behavior is interpreted as detrimental, and action is taken to eliminate it. This becomes traumatic for those who have autism.
The vast majority of face-to-face human communication is non-verbal. It’s just the way humans are innately programmed and likely dates back to our pre-verbal primate ancestors on the savanna. Those with autism are often excluded because of different body language, flat facial expression, tone of voice, or other verbal or non-verbal cues which are not interpreted in the way they were intended to come across by the individual with autism. People then assume we have bad intentions or are retarded.
So how does this relate to employment?
These non-verbal and verbal cues are also everything interviewers examine during the hiring process. A candidate is typically subject to several interviews by different interviewers or panels. All interviewers are keenly examining not only answers to general or technical questions as well as questions deliberately designed to throw the interviewee off balance, but every aspect of the interviewee’s presentation from the time they walk in the door until they leave. If you are slightly autistic anywhere, you risk being thrown in the reject pile.
From the perspective of the interviewee with autism, this is a potential nightmare scenario. An individual with autism may misstep at some point in the interview by missing some non-verbal cue that is perceived by the interviewer as awkward or inappropriate; then when shown a video recording of the interview later be entirely unable to identify where they went wrong, whereas a person without autism could point it out immediately.
This becomes incredibly interesting when you are a therapist with autism, interviewing people who specialize in mental health. It’s one of the ways I gauge the quality of management for the company I am equally interviewing.
Now, I’ve done plenty of work on myself to blend in. I’ve gathered a lifetime of fitting in. I do mask well, but I also don’t pretend to be something I am not. I also aim for authenticity, not impression.
From the perspective of the interviewing company and hiring manager, the goal is to identify individuals in the relatively tiny time frame of an interview that is going to be able and productive, have some measure of integrity, and are likely to get along with others and keep themselves (and thereby the hiring manager) out of the HR department. In corporate speak, this getting along with others and staying out of HR is called “culture-fit” or “culture-fitness” of a candidate. Verbal or non-verbal actions or missed cues that the interviewee demonstrates which are perceived as awkwardness or inappropriateness raise red flags with interviewers along “culture-fit” lines. And, of course, red flags drive hiring decisions.
Paola Peralta’s 2023 article discusses several key points about the hiring practice that leaves those on the spectrum un-included. This will only worsen over time, as these practices have intensified. Goh Tong describes the average length of the interview process in this 2023 article, “Job interviews are getting longer-here’s why it could be a red flag.” He reports there is an average of 9 interviews for an individual applying for a professional job at present.
Over the last decade or three, it has been popular in the US to insist we as a society are advanced in our non-biased methods and inclusive of all with a special focus on gaining employment and college acceptance through programs such as affirmative action, etc. From the perspective of a college-educated person with autism who has struggled through many such interviews, that’s just bullshit. From personal experience, there is still great stereotyping and stigmatization in the hiring world.
Lots of interviewing practice and experience can help
I interview at least once or twice per year. It’s a great experience, leaves my options open, and I gain skills and knowledge both about what’s out there for work, and how to better interact. To say in our terms, it helps me to hide my oddities.
I recently interviewed for several positions working in the therapy field. I am fully aware I have a blog that interviewers will look up and research my internet presence. I completed these appointments.
Frequent interviewing helps me to gauge others just as much as they try to categorize me. I am constantly assessing, analyzing, and learning- both to be able to engage more socially and to be more comfortable being myself.
While some concluded splendidly, others not so much. The interview process has always been challenging, especially for me. I get anxious, experience difficulty conveying subject matter, exhibit awkward body language like cracking my knuckles, awkwardly crossing and uncrossing my arms, or tapping my feet, and generally skirt the borders of the shutdown. When that happens, I cannot think at all.
Do I shake your hand, and give you a hug? Or, not in acknowledgment, that we are greeting each other? Do I tell you my entire life story when we meet, or do I stay superficial and talk about the weather? These are the situations I wade through daily as I move through encounters in the world. In the interview setting, I know enough to take the business-masked approach and only talk about work-related topics.
Making eye contact is akin to looking directly into the headlights of a car. One can imagine the difficulty of explaining to a stranger about the complexities and inner workings of mental health care when you feel like you’re about to get killed.
Imagine being interrogated by police. How comfortable and confident would you be when the blinding light is piercing your vision and you’re scared of judgment and persecution? Then, get bombarded by questions that typically require deep levels of studying to answer.
So, when this happens, is it game over for the interview? Not necessarily.
What we experience feels like reality. But, it isn’t.
Learning about this, I adapted techniques to override these initial disabilities. I look somewhere on the face like the cheek, not directly into the eyes. I pace myself with responses. Slowing down with breath work helps to spark the brain to come back online. I remind myself that I am the expert. And, I have much to offer, yet still so much to learn.
Paola Peralta accurately describes this difference with neurodivergent:
“A 2020 study of the performance of autistic job seekers by the U.K’s University of Bath and University College London found that autistic applicants are less likely to engage in “impression management,” which is the conscious or subconscious process in which someone will attempt to influence how people perceive them, using strategies such as persuasion and self-promotion. This causes autistic applicants to often rate poorly in confidence, communication skills, and likability. “
To be fair, I don’t openly announce at any point that I have autism in the interview or application process. I’ve done that, too. The results are still poor and maybe divulging that just seals the deal and guarantees poor results. In addition, stigmatization and categorization are piled on the process before we even begin.
Brandon Orozco further elaborates on this hiring obstacle:
“To better grasp this paradox, it is important to recognize its origin and the flaws in its implementation. Notably, autistic individuals qualify to be included as a protected class under the classification of physical or mental disability and are therefore protected from employment discrimination (Longley, 2022). Important to note is that disability is not meant to be a negative connotation but a means of identification for legal purposes to offer services and protections. Indeed, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a disability as a condition that impacts or limits a person’s ability to perform tasks or engage in activities (Merriam-Webster, 2022). With this in mind, Autism does affect or limit a person’s ability to engage in activities or perform tasks, namely interviewing. The reason is that Autism primarily impacts social skills, communication, and self-regulation, which can bring adverse reactions in an interview setting where the expectation is, unfortunately social.”
The term masking refers to pretending like you’re normal. You act sociable, you pick up on tricks others use to move through encounters, minimize or eliminate stimming (self-soothing) behaviors, suppress interests, copy nonverbal behaviors, and generally hide your traits in order to fit in. To remind everyone, fitting in is not belonging. This gives no sense of connection, just the ability to move through social interactions. It’s basically not worth more than trying to not draw negative attention. You become a chameleon.
Masking is also exhausting and contributes to increased depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Because we don’t engage in chatty conversations, we are labeled standoffish. It’s also an invisible disability.
Those with autism are as good at reading the body language and environments just as much as other people. We’re also very perceptive at picking up on feelings. Yet, we have different values.
I won’t mask as much as I used to. Now, I understand that a certain amount is necessary to get by in society. I adapted to contain feelings states, cope healthfully, and not hurt others with direct communication of all opinions. For example, telling people exactly what my thoughts are all the time is generally not helpful, and can be harmful to self and/or others depending on the circumstances.
When it comes to job interviews, the search for the stellar social star with the perfect match for on-the-job skills leaves out numerous qualified candidates already. There are so many with college degrees that are trashed because we didn’t smile at the right time, didn’t work to impress, tried to impress too much, or made poor eye contact. We didn’t disclose, disclosed too much, it’s concluded as a result of something we did, not the system. It feels like a really bad popularity game similar to those I played in high school.
There are trailblazers that have begun to seek out this untapped talent pool. At CAI, INC, they specifically seek out those with the capabilities, with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
So, what is the solution?
This is a question still debated. With our disability laws, there are still staggering figures of unemployed who are disabled, including those who lie on the spectrum. While everybody says they don’t discriminate, it happens daily. I’ve gained enough experience to know that not disclosing my status to employers gives me better chances that I will gain employment. It is easier for me to mask and deal with just enough social interaction necessary, cope with healthy mechanisms in my off-time, and build my life to buffer those areas I still struggle in.
Orozco reminds us that conformity is not inclusion. His call to action is to be aware of these unconscious hiring biases: the horn effect and attraction bias. The horn effect occurs when a recruiter makes a judgment call about a candidate about perceived negative characteristics that cloud their assessment. The attraction bias favors candidates perceived as similar to themselves and their characteristics. Although a perfectly qualified candidate passes through, they are eliminated through these unconscious biases.
There are millions of willing, available adults who are ready to be part of the workforce. The separation lies in our unconscious biases toward people that act outside our normative expectations. If hiring managers were to relax those rigid social standards they cling to during the hiring process, and consider that these candidates were equally capable, we would have both the workforce solutions solved, and the employment rate of those on the spectrum greatly reduced. We would have less money spent on disability or familial care costs.
The only thing standing in the way is the projected biased social expectations placed on others.
1. Peralta, P. “85% of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed — and hiring practices may be to blame.” April 21, 2023, 3:30 p.m. Accessed 6/24/23 from: https://www.benefitnews.com/news/how-to-create-equitable-workplace-experiences-for-autistic-talent#:~:text=85%25%20of%20adults%20on%20the,practices%20may%20be%20to%20blame
2. Orozco, B. “Autistic Unemployment Paradox.” August 21, 2022. The Autism Foundation of Oklahoma. Accessed 6/28/23 at: https://www.autismfoundationok.org/blog/the-paradoxes-of-high-autistic-unemployment-series-part-1-autistic-unemployment-paradox/
3. Tong, GC. “Job interviews are getting longer- here’s why it could be a red flag.” June 30, 2023. Accessed 6/20/23 from: https://www.cnbc.com/2023/06/30/job-interviews-are-getting-longer-heres-why-it-could-be-a-red-flag-.html
4. Bailin, A. “Clearing Up Some Misconceptions about Neurodiversity.” June 6, 2019. Accessed 6/30/23 from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/clearing-up-some-misconceptions-about-neurodiversity/
5. Alexandra (2021). 13 Common Hiring Biases To Watch Out For. https://harver.com/blog/hiring-biases/