Employees On The Autism Spectrum An Amazing Asset, Businesses Find: 'It's Not Charity'

Samantha Kilgore

An estimated 3.5 million Americans are on the autism spectrum, and as the number of people who have been diagnosed with autism grows, so does the number of people with autism who are unemployed.

Despite the fact that many adults who are on the spectrum are considered high functioning, research now shows that 40 percent of adults with autism cannot find work, which is a higher percentage of joblessness than people who have been diagnosed with other developmental disabilities.

The study was performed by Anne Roux with the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia. Her research aimed to address several specific questions.

"There is very little research published concerning how people with autism do in the adult portion of their lifespans. We analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 and the Survey of Pathways to Diagnosis and Services to examine the service needs and life outcomes of adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum. This report describes the prevalence of a wide variety of indicators related to transition planning, services access, unmet needs, employment, postsecondary education, living arrangements, social participation, and safety and risk."

As Roux began to research employment for adults on the autism spectrum, it became apparent that a large number of them were neither getting employment or continuing their education.

"When we learned that last year — that about 40 percent of people were never getting employment or continuing their education — we wondered, 'Why is that, and what happens to them?'" Roux stated.

When research takes into account more than just young adults, the percentage of unemployed people with autism is even more staggering.

"An estimated 80 percent of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are unemployed, though many are fully capable of holding down a job, and some possess exceptional skills in areas such as science, mathematics or technology. The 80 percent unemployment rate becomes even more significant considering an estimated one percent of the world's population has an Autism Spectrum Disorder."

So what makes employment or continued education seemingly less attainable for those individuals on the spectrum versus individuals with other developmental disabilities or challenges?

Like any other group of young people, Roux discovered, individuals on the spectrum are just as eager to become independent, to live on their own, and work. But what she and her team discovered through their concentrated research was that those very necessary social services developed and given to children on the spectrum, designed to address certain skill deficits, become less available as those children mature.

"Once you develop into an adult, those resources plummet," says the vice president of adult services for Autism Speaks, Leslie Long.

According to the in-depth report on the study done by NPR, there is an estimated 50,000 people on the spectrum who enter adulthood annually. And because of the struggle with social skills, as well as the presence of repetitive behaviors -- both of which are hallmarks of autism -- the interview process can be a greater challenge to a young adult with autism. As Long says, some of those behaviors can "seem odd to the uninitiated."

However, the very behaviors that can make a young adult on the spectrum seem odd can be the very same characteristics that make that same person an asset to an employer. Often those on the autism spectrum have talents that are desirable, such as intense focus, or an affinity with numbers and patterns, Long says. She pointed to the fact that it was actually a man on the spectrum who predicted the housing bubble.

"I mean, look at what happened with the housing bubble and the financial market. It was a man on the spectrum who saw which mortgages were going to fall. And I don't think that's something an average person would have been able to do."

Some companies already recognize that having employees on the spectrum can be a benefit and have started to actively recruit individuals with autism.

Microsoft's program, called disAbility, has seen great success. And with tremendous support from both internal and external sources, the program is already a great success, although it's still considered a pilot.

"By adjusting our hiring practices, we are able to recruit from a new talent pool -- a talent pool that is rich with mad skills," says Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the chief accessibility officer at Microsoft and head of the company's disAbility employee group.

Furthermore, Microsoft states it's the company that benefits from outreach to the autism community for potential employees -- not the other way around.

"We're hiring these folks because they're amazingly talented individuals who are going to help us do amazing things at Microsoft."

Bank of America would also agree. The bank's support center, which handles mountains of paperwork, hires only people with disabilities. And it's the employees who have autism that excel at catching errors. Furthermore, those employees also enjoy the repetition of the work. Manager Duke Roberson says he starts the morning with his 75 employees with reinforcing that very idea, which many others would find monotonous rather than comforting.

"I tell my guys as we start in the morning, 'We do the same thing the same way, every day,' " Roberson says.

"There's no charity to this at all," he added.

It seems as though the difficulty for many young adults on the autism spectrum entering the workforce is the actual job search and interviewing. In order to address that very real difficulty, Autism Speaks launched thespectrumcareers.com, a website that seeks to match workers with autism with prospective employers.

One of the unique -- and very helpful -- features of the site is that users are able to post videos of themselves. Twenty-four-year-old website developer Gerald Franklin, who has autism, says the video function is important.

"Video played a huge role in helping people with special needs showcase what they can do," Franklin says.

[Image via Shutterstock]