Survey Reveals Need for Autism-Focused Job Training

By Cristina Mestre

A recent Pennsylvania Autism Survey indicates that the need for job training services for those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has increased dramatically in the past 20 years

About 85 percent of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed, meaning that they are unable to work, unable to find work, working for marginally lower wages than their experience should merit, or working in positions not appropriate to their intelligence and/or ability. The survey also found:

More than 80 percent of survey responders said that finding employment opportunities was very or somewhat difficult, and 73 percent reported that most of the difficulty fell in the category of getting an interview.
 More than 75 percent of employed ASD adults reported some type of discrimination with underutilization of skills being the most common.

Here, we ask John McGonigle, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, to answer a few autism and employment questions for us.

Q: What are some of the ASD-related challenges to finding (and maintaining) employment?
A: Individuals with ASD have the ability, passion and desire to work; however, they continue to be faced with many challenges that can hinder a successful job experience.

The social and communication challenges associated with autism are significant and affect all aspects of job seeking. For example, individuals with ASD may struggle with: creating a resume; filling out applications; setting up an interview; understanding verbal directives; presenting their areas of strength; answering “honestly” no matter what the question; reading subtle social cues and tone of voice; wearing appropriate attire; anticipating the interviewer’s questions; following up after the interview; or, negotiating a salary and start date.

Q: Are employers usually aware of employees’ ASD-related challenges?
A: Unfortunately, no. Due to a lack of employer awareness, as well as some individuals’ interest to maintain privacy, a potential employee often does not disclose his diagnosis during an interview or once he/she has been given the job - if the individual can successfully navigate the social nuances of an interview - for fear of discrimination and scrutiny.
But this can be problematic because employers often cannot provide accommodations or learn how best to support individuals with ASD if they are not aware of the social and communication differences at play.
An added challenge is the upcoming DSM-5 changes in May of this year; both autism and Asperger’s will soon be defined as ASD, meaning that employees with Asperger’s or autism will now be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.  These changes will require education for employers.
Q: What can be done to improve employment outcomes for individuals with ASD?
A: As rates of adults with ASD rise, so does the need for understanding and aware employers who are willing to make nontraditional accommodations such as permitting workers to wear ear buds or headphones to drown out extraneous sound, or allowing flexible schedules or working from home.

Successful employment outcomes require pulling together resources for the individual and the employer that highlight the special talents, skills, and ability of the employee with ASD and designing a work environment with supports to ensure success.

Q: What kind of resources exist here at home to help those with ASD find jobs?
A: The Vocational Training Center and Supported Employment Program of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC provide skills training, work practice, job coaching and employment opportunities for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental disabilities.