One of the biggest positives to come out of the recent global pandemic is an increase in conversations around mental health and mental illnesses. It’s become commonplace for people to talk about their neurodiversity, and for neurotypical individuals to listen and and understand their lived experiences in a more meaningful way. It feels like the time has come for society to move past its prejudices against autism and allow autistic individuals to take their rightful place as contributing members of the workforce. However, the employment statistics for autistic individuals in British Columbia don’t match up to this sentiment; of the 50,000 adults with an autism spectrum diagnosis, less than 20% are employed in work that makes use of their unique skills and talents.
Barriers to Autistic Employment
Given the rise in understanding and acceptance around autism, it feels counterintuitive that only a few companies have taken the rational step of hiring neurodiverse workers. Indeed, major corporations like Microsoft, Google and Ford all have dedicated hiring teams to help give them a competitive edge. On a smaller scale, however, autistic jobseekers face several barriers when they’re looking for work.
Firstly, and most importantly, there are still plenty of negative and unhelpful stereotypes about autistic people which are often promoted in popular movies and TV shows (think about Rainman and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory). These stereotypes cause subconscious prejudices in the minds of hiring managers and teams and make it hard for autistic applicants to be taken seriously.
Secondly, there is a hesitancy in many organizations about the perceived amount of time and effort it will take to change themselves to become autism friendly. The common misconception is that every autistic worker will need untold accommodations and changes made that it often feels safer in the minds of the hiring managers to choose the known factors of neurotypical employees.
Finally, and most challenging, is that from a neurodiverse job seekers point of view, the entire hiring process, from job advert to interview, is heavily weighted towards neurotypical brains. The need for abstract language, nuanced social skills, and the ability to generalize skills from one setting to another can feel overwhelming, causing some autistic individuals to give up on trying to find their dream job before they even start.
Helping Autistic Adults Find Meaningful Work
With these barriers in place, it falls to neurotypical friends, families and allies to help autistic job seekers find work that will make use of their unique skills and talents. While tackling the issues of stereotypes is an issue for society as a whole to take on, it’s possible to undertake some of these steps to help them to find work:
Ghostwrite the applications
job applications are the hardest part of the whole process to get right, as it’s the only way that many hiring managers will get to know prospective candidates. There is a generic formula for cover letters and resumes, but it’s hard for many autistic job seekers to apply this formula in different scenarios. Help them by asking questions about how they would go about the new job, and ghostwrite the application for them, lending your neurotypical language skills to help them get their foot in the door.
Role play the interview
The typical face-to-face interview is not only a terrible predictor of job performance, but it’s also heavily biased towards neurotypical applicants who can read body language and understand subtle social cues to get the job. If you can’t persuade the hiring team to offer a task or group-based interview, be ready to role-play the interview process with the autistic applicant. Come up with scripts for each question, as well as provide tips about how to present themselves.
Become an advocate
one of the best ways that you can help autistic adults to find meaningful jobs is to offer to become an advocate for them. This means calling the companies to set up a phone or in-person applications, accompanying them to the interview, and being willing to talk to the hiring managers about the accommodations that they would need if offered the job. You can do this on a voluntary basis, and you provide a neurotypical bridge between the applicant and the employer.
Getting Professional Autism Help
All of these steps require a lot of time and effort and can feel almost like a full-time job in and of itself. In these situations, it’s a better idea to connect the autistic job seeker with a professional autism talent management agency. These autism experts already have connections with companies who are autism-friendly (or who want to become autism-friendly) and provide training and support both to the autistic job seeker and the prospective employers to help them find a meaningful match.