There is a statistic quoted, 1000 times over, about unemployment and underemployment rates associated with the autistic population. I used to quote it. The quote states: Sources estimate between 75% and 80% of autistic adults are either unemployed or underemployed.
I’ve heard this statistic on news channels. Watched it on YouTube videos. Read it in books. Viewed it on websites. Trouble is only a few places actually provide these mysterious ‘sources.’
The underemployment and unemployment rates for the autistic adults are largely conjecture, as few studies exist, and those that do are biased in nature and are not representative of a general population of autistics. In fact, one commonly quoted statistic is referencing an admittedly biased research of a limited population, such as American, young adults (under the age of twenty-four) who attended special education (sheltered) programs.
Much of the autism and employment research doesn’t include: people of color, females, individuals over the age of 30.
To date there are no all-encompassing statistic in the U.S. that represent the number of autistics who are currently employed (or currently in existence, for that matter.) Autism and Overcoming Job Barriers: Comparing Job-Related Barriers and Possible Solutions in and outside of Autism-Specific Employment, 2016, points out that most recent studies do not present a general overview of the collective of employed adults on the autism spectrum, and typically assess employment only in specific groups.
It’s smart to question where employment statistics are derived from when concerning autistics and to take into account the ages of the participants (and levels of individual support needs). Nowadays, most typical young adults, under the age of twenty-five in the USA, are struggling to find full time employment or a decent paying job (autism aside). And those that were once children placed in sheltered classrooms are historically the adult children that are struggling more in daily life in general and need extra help.
Autistic adults weren’t all in special education classes.
That’s an important fact to remember. Some autistics weren’t even diagnosed until their 40s, 50s, or 60s.
The overall societal perception of autistics in the workplace is that autistics lack the practical skills, social skills, and education to get a job. The overriding thought is if 1) we can just educate them on how to act and fit in, 2) and give them those educational resources to build up their skills, and 3) prep them for the interview, 4) they can do it!
This type of reasoning is deficient on a number of counts—but specifically in the way the conclusion leaves out numerous autistic individuals who have fine-tuned their communication skills, who have had jobs and higher educational experience, and who have tried to fit in with workplace culture. If autistics just needed a booster shot in vocational education skills and social smarts to be able to obtain and maintain a job, autistics would be on their way already.
The truth is that many adult autistics have been hired, and subsequently been fired, or let go, or left the job on their own accord. Most autistics I know reported the number one reason for leaving the workplace was . . . bullying.
Not too long ago, I was on an outreach call with an agency leader. I was representing the technology company I work for, explaining about our neurodiverse hiring initiatives, when the agency leader, when speaking on autistic job seekers, said, “We just need to get them into social skills training.”
At that point, I had to draw from my years of communication, psychology, and Buddhist studies, to calmly reply, “I am a them.”
On the point of education, in analyzing the data from the online survey (admittedly biased), I conducted in 2017, there was one piece of data that was evident right from the start: There are a significant number of autistic adults around the globe who have some form of higher education or training beyond high school.
More than 89% of the 183 survey participants had some level of training or education after basic schooling (high school) and over 27% held advanced degrees. Another interesting fact was that many individuals had held down multiple full time jobs over the course of their career.
Here is a list of jobs I collected from adults on the autism spectrum in a 2017 online survey; the adults reported their current or most recent job, and reside in various countries, including the USA, Australia, Canada, and the UK:
Animal Care Technical, Archivist Assistant, Artist, Audiologist, Author, Autism Educator, Automobile Garage director, Bookkeeper personal assistant, Business Owner (Not Specified), Cake Decorator, Caregiver of Elderly, Caretaker, Childcare Practitioner (Residential), Child Protective Services, Secretary/Senior Assistant Caseworker, Childcare Provider, Childcare Provider (Substitute), Civil Servant, Community Organizer, Coordinator of Small Autism Support Organisation, Copywriter/Content Marketing, Counselor Intern in Graduate School, County Inspector, Crisis Worker (Licensed Mental Health Therapist), Dean of Students, Delivery Scheduler, Delivery Driver, Disability Advocate/Disability Supports Coordinator, Dishwasher at Restaurant, Editorial Cartoonist, Education Assistant, Environmental Monitoring Assistant, Farmer/Rancher, Fast Food Delivery Driver, Floor Clerk at Architecture Firm, Freelance Consultant & Gardener, Freelance Interpreter, Futures Trader, Grocer, Grocery Cashier, Group Processing Specialist (Insurance Company), Home health aide retail worker, Homemaker and Massage Therapist, Horticulturist, Hospital Linen Department, Housekeeper, Internship at Radio Show, Ironing, IT Support Specialist, Jewelry Maker, Library Assistant, Library Media Technician/Librarian (Elementary School), Marketing Coordinator, Member Service Representative, Medical Scribe, Migration Consultant, (Relief) Milker, Full-Time Mom, Office Administration, Operations Analyst, Physical Therapist, Poet, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Private Caregiving, Professor, Proofreader and Teaching Assistant, Public Accountant, QA Analyst, LMFT, (and Doctorate Student), QDDP/Program Manager, Residential Counselor, Retired from State Service after 38 years, School Aide and School Services Officer, Special Education Director, Senior Hospital Scientist at Children’s Hospital (Oncology), Senior Project Manager at a Pharmaceutical Technology Company, Senior VP of Programming Radio Program, Student Conference Assistant, Social Worker, Social Worker (Retired, Working Voluntarily), Software Tester, Software Tester and Graphic Designer, Special Education Teacher, Tax Preparer, Teaching Artist, Teaching Assistant, Teacher, (Substitute) Teacher, Child Care, Tutoring,Teacher’s Aide (Direct Support Professional & Residential Habilitation Aide), Technician, Transcriber/Editor, Truck Driver, Truck Mechanic (Apprentice), Uber Driver, Virtual Assistant, Volunteer with GCA Centre for Adult Autism, Walgreens, Assistant Wine Maker, Yoga Teacher.
And my favorite: “I am a Knight on an ecological farm.”
In managing my Facebook page Everyday Aspergers, there have been numerous times, after I have posted a recent autism study, proclaiming some new finding, when autistic community members pipe up and comment: I could have told them that! Why don’t they ask us?
Why not, indeed.
The next time you read a statistic about autistics, consider going to the source. Better yet, go to an actual autistic person.
Side note: There are multiple issues at hand. The point of the article is we don’t know; we don’t even know how many autistics there are. But I definitely believe there are large numbers of disabled people out of work and in need of work, and non-disabled people as well. It’s an employment crisis for many, not just autistics. Perhaps if we had examples of what other autistics are doing, others could find mentors, inspiration, hope. There are no easy answers.
For much more information about autism as it relates to employment, check out myspectrumsuite.com. The author Marcelle Ciampi (aka Samantha Craft) is a lead job recruiter, community outreach professional, former school teacher, published author, speaker, autism advocate, and friend to 1000s of awesome-minded folks around the globe. She has just completed the manuscript Autism in a Briefcase: A leading edge tool for putting diversity into action. Feel free to contact her at everydayaspergers @gmail.com
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