Across the world individuals with autism (ASD) struggle on a daily basis. One of these areas is particularly pronounced for ASD adults: employment. In fact, in terms of employment, ASD individuals have employments rates often significantly lower than in other areas of disability. In the UK, ASD has the second lowest employment rate within government categorised disabilities at only 29% (Sparkes et al., 2021: 9). Given the supposed help available in the form of various employment support services, it raises the question of why this is the case. It is certainly rooted in the social model of disability which determines that it is society that disables the individual and, as such, employers themselves are absolutely central to the problem. However, I want to look more closely at some of the problems with autism employment support services and the role that they play in failing the individual.
Those with ASD who are actively seeking work may be equipped with significant skill sets which might be greater than those of their neurotypical (NT) counterparts. However, the job interview, which is almost always a main deciding factor in whether an individual gains employment, is in fact a social barrier and it is usually the final barrier to employment. Many of those with ASD experience complex social difficulties, in whatever form they might take, thus are automatically disadvantaged.
One of the reasons for this is that the job interview is a site of human judgement of others rather than a judgement based on paper credentials. The ASD candidate who has difficulty speaking to others will lose out to an NT peer who speaks clearly and fluently. McMahon (2021) found that ASD individuals who exhibited poor eye contact, sensory issues, or awkward non-verbal communication were likely to be adversely affected at interview.
Whelpley & May (2022) demonstrated that when faced with hiring decisions between NT and ASD candidates, ASD candidates saw their qualifying criteria given less weight than NT’s with fluent social skills. This seem to show that recruiters are more interested in social elements rather than an individual’s capability to perform the job. Given the corporate world’s penchant for efficiency, rigid rules, and bland etiquette, it seems counterintuitive to have so much resting on social skills and whether the individual is socially pleasing to the employer.
It is here that employment support services target ASD adults by claiming to help teach them interview techniques in order to obtain gainful employment. However, as the previous figures show, it is not working. The problem with attempting to teach ASD adults interview techniques is that it undermines the very premise of accepting autism within the workplace. The idea that an ASD individual needs to learn interview techniques buys into the idea that they can ‘fake it till they make it’ which is completely oppositional to autism acceptance. Further, teaching interview techniques cannot prepare the individual for all possibilities. For example, ASD adults who need predictability are going to be sold down the river pretty quickly when they are faced with something unexpected at interview.
Another example is that interviews are often sites for dishonesty and bending the truth in order to get the job. This means that an interviewee must act on the fly be able to bend the outcomes to their will so to speak. Given that many ASD adults have enduring honesty, this may run counter to the situation. I am not saying that interviews as a whole are a redundant thing, rather that they are of such a narrow breadth that they are nothing more than a ritualised game of which interviewee can conform the hardest to a preordained set of bland and dehumanising corporate expectation.
Many autism employment services are targeted towards young adults with ASD. Although there is nothing wrong with this per se, it still conforms to existing corporate failures insofar as the young adult employee will always be seen as preferential to an older worker. This means that ASD adults who do not fit nicely into the correct (often 18-24) age bracket find themselves with greater problems than young ASD adults. As such, the older the ASD job seeker, the more likely that existing employment expectations will compound for those older individuals.
Additionally, those older ASD adults who have had previous employment difficulties, perhaps a historical cycle of being hired and fired which is often the case, or even no work history at all, will also be seen as triply problematic; autistic, poor work record, and age. It is perhaps also reflective of the overwhelming tendency to see autism only as something that relates to children (Steveson et al., 2011). The 18-24 age bracket fits into that liminal traversal between childhood and adulthood and so mining that pool of potential will always be an ageist priority for the corporate world.
Exploitation of the Savant
Autistic individuals are sometimes referred to as a savant and historically they were often known by the derogatory term minted by Edouard Seguin, the ‘idiot savant’, a person who excels in one area whilst having impairments in others. The term ‘savant’ means somebody who has an exceptional skill in a specific area (Happé, 2018). Services often promote the employability of autistic individuals by amplifying their ‘extraordinary’ skills. This both implies and perpetuates the stereotype that being autistic means that an employer is going to get some kind of super-brain individual; a game-winning corporate consumable. It buys into the fallacy of the ‘autism workplace advantage’ whereby those with special skills related to being autistic can gain some kind of competitive edge over others (Bury et al., 2020). In reality, those who could be considered a savant are a small minority and so become a holy grail whilst the rest all have their own individual difficulties and are discarded.
Following from the exploitation of the savant, the same principle seems to also be implied in a heavy focus by employment support services on getting ASD individuals employment in certain areas. Often partnering with big name corporations, these areas of employment are often coding, pharmaceutical, or banking. In other words, the STEM stereotype. These corporations are expecting advanced levels of STEM abilities such as greater abilities to spot coding errors, greater maths performance, or some kind of super science brain.
Note how the ASD individual is only wanted for their corporate commodity value and not as a means of offering an ASD individual a genuine and human offering of meaningful employment. Further, Postulka & Flessa (2020) found that savants actually integrate better in micro-sized companies rather than small, medium, and large enterprises which perhaps reflects the lesser social pressures placed on them. Placing them with these large corporations may essentially set them on a losing path.
Given the dominance of the social aspects of employment over actual ability, it is perhaps no surprise that in-work support leaves much to be desired. In-work support is often constructed around the provisions of so-called ‘reasonable adjustments’ and the funding for them. Reasonable adjustments are changes that can be made to help an individual in their employed role. According to the NHS these adjustments can include:
- Ergonomic equipment
- Screen filters
- Time management and project management apps
- Text-to-speech apps
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Quiet areas
Of course, there is no in-work support for dealing with attitudes towards ASD. In-work support again falls under the category of ‘ways to get the ASD individual to assimilate’ rather than ‘ways in which we can all learn how to deal with difference’. It is very ironic (or insulting depending on your view) that the ASD individual who may have issues with adapting is seen as problematic, yet the company and its employees who will not adapt to the ASD individual cannot see the hypocrisy.
Some of the other problems with autism support services seem to be their localised nature which is likely reflective of ideological enforcement of the free-market and anti-welfare positions. In similar vein, some employment support services are paid-for services which in itself is exploiting those who are already vulnerable and impoverished by the employment world and (purposefully) by the government.
A further issue is highlighted by some services whereby they have very little information on the website about what they can offer which ultimately leaves those who have communication difficulties, or social difficulties, in a position where they either cannot contact them or they are extremely anxious of doing so.
Having visited a number of websites that claim to offer support to individuals, I have found that often it is actually impossible to find if they offer any support at all. There is no obvious way to access support or to find exactly what support they offer. You can even follow this trail yourself.
If you search around for autism support sites that claim to offer employment support, approach viewing the website with the following question in mind: ‘how are they going to help me get a job?’. You’ll find very little in the way of answers. Some of them contain a lot of empty rhetoric casting an illusion of help where they may be none at all.
Perhaps the problem is that autism employment support services are themselves assimilatory to existing corporate (or corporate charity) norms. They may view any issues through the lens of the existing corporate way of doing things and so their approach to solving issues is automatically embedded in existing ways of doing things.
As a final note, I would argue that the high rate of unemployment amongst ASD individuals is not only rooted in discriminatory ideas, but also in the nature of employment itself. An employee is seen by a company as a person who gets paid to perform a job. This job is supposed to be beneficial to making a profit. As such, the employee then becomes a producer of profit and, ideologically, they should be an efficient producer of profit. They should be competitive. They should be self-disciplined. They should be assimilated to company culture. They should be dedicated to the company no matter how little they get paid. The company, of course, wants the best and highest performing workers and it also wants to pay as little as possible for their labour. This ultimately leads to the misery that the world of work has now become.
Instead, a company that is socially responsible should be acting in a capacity that supports the lives of its workers. Rather than being an efficient producer of profit, it should be an efficient producer of better lives. If it ‘invests in people’ then it should be investing in a better life for those with autism and not simply exploiting them for corporate gain. As for the autism employment services sector, well, it needs to adapt and it needs to adapt by promoting corporate change towards those with autism.
Bury, S. M., Hedley, D., Uljarević, M., & Gal, E. (2020). The autism advantage at work: A critical and systematic review of current evidence. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 105, 103750.
Happé, F. (2018). Why are savant skills and special talents associated with autism? World Psychiatry, 17(3), 280–281. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20552
McMahon, C. M., Henry, S., & Linthicum, M. (2020). Employability in autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Job candidate’s diagnostic disclosure and asd characteristics and employer’s ASD knowledge and social desirability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000282
Postulka, M., & Flessa, S. (2020). The Savant Syndrome-Company Size as a Possible Determinant for Occupational Integrability. International Journal of Health Economics and Policy, 5(3), 49-53.
Sparkes, I., Riley, E., Cook, B., & Machuel, P. (2021). Sparkes, I., Riley, E., Cook, B., & Machuel, P. (2021). Outcomes for disabled people in the UK: 2021. In ons.gov. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/disability/articles/outcomesfordisabledpeopleintheuk/2021
Stevenson, J. L., Harp, B. & Gernsbacher, M. A. (2011). Infantilizing Autism. Disability studies quarterly: DSQ, 31(3). NIH Public Access.
Whelpley, C. E., & May, C. P. (2022). Seeing is Disliking: Evidence of Bias Against Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Traditional Job Interviews. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 53. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-022-05432-2