Building Bridges to Nowhere: On Workplace Best Practices for Keeping Autistic Persons Terminally Jobless

The bitter irony of his dressing in black was not lost on me. He smiled a hopeful smile, before walking into the “job interview practice” hosted by a local Autism Organization.

As I watched him go, I felt a wave of deep frustration, suppressed my urge to go in after him and tell the organizers about the unintended consequences of their well-meant, but ultimately damaging status quo-reinforcing efforts.

Even though the research into jobless rates of autistic persons is somewhat patchy, we do know it is high enough to be labeled simply horrid. While the US Labor Department gives us the good news of a 50 year record low of unemployment in the United States of 3.6 percent, it is estimated autistic adults are somewhere in the 81 to 90 percent unemployment range.

While some of this is soft-employment-persons seemingly endlessly bouncing from job to job, much of the unemployment of autistic persons is terminal in nature. Most autistic adults are jobless, and unless the matrix of employment of autistic persons changes, they are going to remain jobless for the rest of their lives.

They are relegated to a life of not finding meaning in the work of their hands, providing income for themselves, their families, and a hope for the future.

So, why would practicing job interview skills be such a bad thing for autistic persons?

Let me ask you this: do you think a tomato plant will thrive grown in a desert environment?

While the Neurodiversity movement is gaining ground, and a few employers are beginning to grasp the value of crafting workplace cultures honoring persons with disabilities, even uniquely-abled autistic persons, the hard fact of the matter is the majority of workplaces today are uninviting, demeaning places to autistic and otherwise-neurodivergent persons.

Just running the gauntlet of trying to get through a job interview with someone who doesn’t understand your “frequency” is a harrowing exercise in sheer madness for autistic persons.

Tragically, recruiters, HR professionals, managers and business owners are relentlessly demonstrating themselves to be deeply ignorant of the actual workplace success needs of actually-autistic persons.

And rather than adjusting workplace environments and protocols to be more welcoming to autistic persons, thus gaining valuable workers, they’ve found it much easier to simply tell autistic persons, “This isn’t really working out, so we’re letting you go.”

Also, autistic persons who are employed are either exerting enormous personal energy in “masking” or hiding their autism in plain sight, or they are in one of the few job market sectors where they’re culturally celebrated, venerated- information technology (IT). Go, nerds, go!

While the latest efforts by some technology companies to hire autistic persons is certainly appreciated– especially by autistic persons working in these companies, the reality is many autistic persons are not, nor ever will be, interested in careers in technology.

That some workplaces insist working in IT is THE answer to autistic unemployment is a profoundly rude and disrespectful posture towards the multi-faceted gifting and talents of autistic persons worldwide.

I’m familiar with an autistic person who happens to be one of the finest neurosurgeons in the country. Can you imagine if your loved one was denied a vital medical procedure, was operated on by a less competent surgeon– simply because this particular autistic medical practitioner had been deemed to only be employable as a computer programmer?

Of course, not all autistic persons are destined to be brain surgeons. Some autistic persons I personally know dream of being cooks, gardeners, musicians, and artists. But all of them wish to belong, to use their minds and hands to work, to own a sense of belonging, being known as being of value in the culture.

Recently, the en vogue workplace office setting is open-space design, where all the walls come down and company workers are no longer constrained by cubicles, office partitions, and so on. This shift causes difficulties for many autistic persons, the majority of whom live with sensory-processing issues and are overwhelmed by the pressure of such high-demand, forced social environments.

In an already noise-polluted culture, the idea of being stuck without any personal or sensory buffers in one of these open-space offices is overwhelming at best– and often terrifying– to autistic persons.

Imagine someone who just wants to do their job in their workspace, produce results for their company, get a paycheck, and at the end of each day, go home to curl up with their fluffy pet.

And now, thanks to the new open-office design and policies designed to foster collaboration– they are intolerably distracted by having to work in a 360 degree sensory defensive zone!

Again, a truly counter-inclusive idea being polished up, paraded as some sort of breakthrough moment by the architects of workplace culture.  Without a pre-existing culture of acceptance, diversity, and inclusivity being firmly in place, these workspace harm anyone who is not a social insider.

So, should we merely leave it at the doorstep of business leaders to feel badly about the sad plight of autistic would-be employees? After all, business IS business and if you don’t fit in the company “culture” then the Company must put Team needs ahead of everything else, right?

No, the time for thinking this way has long passed. Regardless of the fact that companies who steer around neurodivergent persons are missing out on incredibly high-capacity workers, ones with a job retention rate many times that of their neurotypical peers, the truth is companies who systematically derail the job opportunities of autistic persons are complicit in their deaths.

Excuse me, did you just state– complicit in their deaths?

Yes. If you didn’t know already, and the mainstream media is not exactly making headlines of this hard news– autistic adults are taking their own lives in droves. With an estimated suicide rate nine times the grim national average, autistic persons have a life expectancy of around 36 years of age.

Constant anxiety, crushing depression, and the out-of-reach workplace makes for a lethal cocktail for too many autistic persons. Companies with a warped workplace culture– one which offers welcome to neurotypical persons, “normal folk,” but is unwelcoming to neurodiverse persons plays an accessory role in their demise.

If you’re a business owner, a leader, someone who willfully turns a blind eye to the employment reach of autistic persons– and the broader systemic failure of workplaces to make changes to reasonably accommodate autistic persons, then you stand accused of not only discrimination, but of destruction of other human persons.

It simply does not have to be this way. Somewhere in the tension between the way things are now and the way things ought to be is a better way of doing business– one inclusive, even celebrating, neurodiversity understanding. Here are a couple of suggestions for changing our culture’s workplaces into models of diversity for the future:

Hire a neurodiversity consulting organization to train your company in how to craft a truly neurodiverse-friendly workplace. It’s a great first step to grow your organization, and your best assets, your people, in deepening, strengthening workplace relationships.

Bringing in outside help is a time-honored way to promote change. When it’s needed, most people don’t try and fix their own bodies– they bring in the help of a doctor. Relax, say “ahaaa,” and stick out your tongue, please.

Bring in a neurodiversity broker onto your staff or find a consultant who will transform the workplace.  Better still, find an autistic neurodiversity consultant. Hire and empower someone who transcends the “business as usual” workplace culture and can work with executives, human resources, staff leaders, individuals, and strategic team groups to change the narrative from the ground up in your workplace.

These people are few, in high-demand, and difficult to find at the moment… but definitely worth the effort.

The move towards a fully inclusive, neurodiverse workplace of the future has begun. And in time, it will eclipse the working world culture we know today. Why not get on board now? There are millions of autistic adults watching and hoping the doors of your workplace will truly be open to them soon.

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4 Responses

  1. Right now I stay at home with my daughter. When she starts kindergarten I would like to go back to work. I have a bachelor’s in Family Studies and Human Services. Right after college the only jobs I could get I were overqualified for. So it will be interesting to see if I can find a job since I’m awful at interviews.

  2. Office technology can be a key factor in creating an environment that caters to diverse needs. Companies like KDI, with their comprehensive office technology solutions, have the potential to customize and streamline workflows in a way that can accommodate employees with varying needs and work styles. Incorporating assistive technologies and customizable digital tools can significantly improve the working conditions for autistic employees, and indeed for all employees. Let’s not forget, inclusivity benefits everyone, and technology can be an incredible catalyst in achieving this.

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