Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Employment Issues in Autism: Trends

There are two conflicting trends at work in the effort by autistic people to enter the workplace: the status quo (which is still ascendant) is what Mark Romoser calls malemployment --- working a job you're both bad at and overqualified for --- while the countertrend is the rising level of general awareness about autism, and a proliferation of support systems geared toward helping autistic people adapt.

I don't think that part of the trend has yet had any significant effect on autistic adults; almost all of the publicity about autism concerns children, and most of the new supports available are educational in nature. Most of the supports available to people with disabilities seeking employment are also ill-suited to the needs of people with a lot of education and technical skills who just can't handle the social aspects of a job. But I think the tide is probably close to turning on this one. My generation of autistic people has grown up with autism being fairly well-known and (in some places more than others) a lot of support programs available. We are going to college in greater numbers than autistic people ever have before. That means more of us than before will try to enter the highly-skilled work force, and since the fields we're likeliest to choose (engineering, math, science, IT) are the same ones that graduate fewer students than the market needs (or so I keep reading), it's quite likely that if we ask for accommodations, potential employers will listen. No, I don't think it will happen by itself, but I do think the times are on our side.

There's also another trend I wonder about: do autistic women have a worse time of it finding skilled employment than autistic men? I found precious little in the literature about this, which doesn't surprise me, as autistic women and autistics with demonstrably high intelligence are both relatively neglected in research. I imagine the set containing both of those qualities is practically invisible in the journals.

There was one small indication of a trend in this direction in Venter et al's 1992 study of fifty-eight "high-functioning" autistic children who were followed up into adulthood: of the fourteen who had managed to secure employment on the regular job market, all were male, and of the three who had absolutely nothing to do with their time (no job, no supported work environment, no school or other training, no organized group activities), two were female. I can't find the full text of that article, so I cannot see how many girls were in the experimental group, but based on what I see in every other study of autism, it was probably a very small number. I do not consider this to be much in the way of empirical validation of my thesis; Venter doesn't report any sex differences in the abstract, and Howlin (in whose review this study is summarized) likewise doesn't infer anything from it. Only one study I encountered was large enough to have anything to say about sex differences, and that was Billstedt, Gillberg and Gillberg's 2005 prospective follow-up study of 120 autistic children diagnosed in the 1960s, '70s or '80s. They were specifically looking for, among other things, evidence to support the hypothesis that female autistics had worse outcomes than male autistics, which they didn't find. The people in their study population had such profound difficulties (only 10% of them had IQs near normal, most had aggressive or self-injurious behaviors and 78% had outcomes dubbed "poor" or "very poor") that the authors caution against applying their results to people with "high-functioning autism" or Asperger syndrome. Skeptical as I am of a meaningful distinction (beyond the definitional ones of IQ and language ability) between low- and high-functioning autism, or between autism and Asperger syndrome, it is mostly the latter two groups who will seek employment in the science and technology fields (at least, as long as working in those fields remains dependent on having the verbal skills necessary to pass an interview. That could change).

I would like to see a study done that compares female and male autistics of similar ability and education in their quest for suitable employment, though. I have a very strong suspicion that the women would fare poorly because the professions autistics tend to enter --- those that are detail-oriented, technical, involve problem-solving and working with things more than people --- are also heavily male-dominated. I would predict autistic women would be doubly shut out by their social ineptitude and by their femaleness, which in an all-male environment is another social disadvantage.

1 comment:

Beastinblack said...

From what I have seen, women tend to be more understanding towards anyone who is different, maybe because in general they show more empathy. My fellow male workers are the ones I cannot tolerate. The difference in personalities all thrown together in one workplace seriously affects my performance, and the way I am percieved as a result. They tend to be like pack hunters, not too bad on their own, but gang up once together, just like at school. At school the bullying was more direct, at work exclusion is the dominating style, and over time it is alot worse. That is just my experience though.