Thursday, May 15, 2008

Employment Issues in Autism: Executive Summary

My own frustrating experiences looking for jobs (discussed in Part I of the series) has prompted me to do an informal literature review (Parts II and III) on the topic of autistic adult employment.

I wanted to know: Are we unemployed at higher levels than the general population? If so, how bad is it? When we are employed, do we experience any special problems in the workplace? What factors contribute to our higher levels of un- and underemployment (if we have it, which I soon found we do)? Are any of these factors changing? What can employers do to make workplaces more autistic-friendly (Part IV)?

To answer those questions, I consulted the following sources: Karen Hurlbutt and Lynn Chalmers' (2004) interviews with six highly educated adults with diagnoses of Asperger syndrome about their difficulties finding jobs, their having to settle for very menial jobs well below what they're qualified to do, and their difficulty holding onto even those jobs for very long; Gena Barnhill's (2007) and Patricia Howlin's (2000) literature reviews on adult outcomes in Asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism; Leo Kanner's (1972) and Hans Asperger's adult-outcome data on the children they originally studied who led them to define "autism"; Eva Billstedt, Carina Gillberg and Christopher Gillberg's (2005) follow-up study of 120 adults who were diagnosed with autism in childhood during the 1960s, '70s and '80s; and André Venter, Catherine Lord and Eric Schopler's (1992) eight-year follow-up study of 58 "high-functioning" autistic children.

The predominant impression I got from the literature was that most autistic people were either completely unable to get work in the competitive job market (they are either unemployed or working in sheltered environments just for people with disabilities) or they tended to work strings of low-paying, menial jobs far below their skill level. They also tend not to hold onto jobs for very long, due to difficulties stemming from interactions with coworkers, and also from not being very good at the kind of fast-paced, multitasking-heavy service jobs that are often the only jobs they can get.

Several posts from Joseph at Natural Variation cast doubt on the high unemployment rates that are commonly cited for autistic adults, though; he raises the point that so many of the studies of employment outcomes among autistic adults rely on study populations derived from state disability services. This population is probably much more likely to be unemployed than the general autistic population. So that's an important caveat --- the studies I found probably overstate the degree to which most autistic adults fail to find jobs and integrate into society, but the problems they describe are still real.

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