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Q and A: MU Expert Discusses Employment Challenges Facing Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders

December 3rd, 2012

Story Contact: Jesslyn Chew,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – An estimated 1.5 million individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) live in the United States, according to the Autism Society of America. Despite extensive research on children with autism, little is known about what happens to these individuals when they grow up, particularly with regard to their employment situations. Scott Standifer, a University of Missouri researcher, studies employment issues affecting adults with autism. In the following Q&As, Standifer discusses obstacles individuals with ASD confront as they begin jobs and offers suggestions for helping those with autism become successful members of the workforce.

Q: What types of jobs work well for individuals with autism?

A: There is no best type of job for people with autism—that is like asking what type of job is best for people who are very tall—it depends on the person. It isn’t the type of business that matters; it is the nature of the workplace and the job responsibilities. Individuals with autism usually will have difficulty in jobs involving a lot of unstructured social contact with the general public or jobs with little routine. Work environments with a lot of noise and hectic activity probably will not work well. Individuals with autism usually do best in workplaces with clear rules, consistent procedures, and limited, structured social contacts. That leaves many employment possibilities for those with ASD.

Q: What obstacles do adults with autism face when they apply for employment and, later, when they enter the workforce? How can they overcome these challenges?

A: Difficulty reading social cues is probably the biggest employment challenge for adults with ASD. This difficulty shows up most prominently in job interviews, which rely heavily on applicants’ abilities to communicate during short, high-stakes meetings. Since individuals with autism have trouble reading social cues and responding as expected, standard interviews are unlikely to go well. The dynamics of interview situations for people with autism need to change. A few companies, such as Walgreens, AMC Theatres and 3M, are starting to address this.

In addition to the challenges with reading social cues, people with autism tend to speak bluntly and don’t cushion criticism the way most of us do. They might say, “That’s a really ugly shirt,” or, “This is a stupid way to sort files.” It doesn’t take long for that behavior to get them into trouble. Social-skills training and specific explanations of workplace culture can help those with autism respond more appropriately in work situations. In addition, co-workers or workplace mentors should try to understand the nature of the persons’ challenges so they can meet them halfway and help them navigate office politics.

Q: What can family members and friends of adults with autism do to help their loved-ones transition successfully into the workforce?

A: People with autism often need more time to make transitions and changes, either on small scales (from one task to another) or large life-stage scales (graduating from school and beginning a job). Ideally, young adults with autism should have structured work or volunteer experiences a couple of years before high school or college graduation. Parents and families should contact vocational rehabilitation counselors early, well before the youths’ senior years in school, and have them meet with the schools’ special education teams. The counselors may not be able to begin formal services yet, but they can start conversations with the individuals and the special education teams.

Q: What should potential employers know about hiring someone with autism? How can managers and co-workers facilitate better workplaces for those individuals?

A: Some common features of autism actually can be assets on the job. Individuals with autism generally like consistent work routines and complying with rules, procedures, policies and standards. They often excel at noticing patterns and deviations from patterns, which can make them especially equipped for roles in quality control, computer applications, etc. Also, when compared with other workers, employees with autism normally socialize less and don’t waste time at work talking with their colleagues about the weather or the upcoming football games.

Recently, Walgreens published objective performance data about its autism and disability employment project in its distribution centers. The workers with disabilities performed as well as or better than other workers on all performance measures, had significantly lower turnover, and usually required only minimal, inexpensive accommodations. We have heard the same thing from AMC Theatres and other companies making efforts to hire individuals with autism. With informed accommodations and modest support from co-workers, those with autism represent a dependable, untapped labor pool.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing issue facing individuals with ASD, especially with regard to employment?

A: We still have much to learn about the best ways to support people with autism in the workforce. State vocational rehabilitation agencies are starting to make important changes in how they provide services for autism. National autism advocacy groups and researchers, who have always focused on children with ASD, are starting to include employment and adult issues in their areas of activity. In addition, a handful of enlightened companies—often because of parent advocates in upper management—are starting to hire workers with autism and promote the idea to other companies. Autism self-advocate groups also are working with businesses to promote employment issues.

Time and again, I have heard that employers or companies that make systemic changes to accommodate people with autism not only get productive employees with autism, they also find their existing “non-autistic” workers like and use the accommodations and become more effective employees. Everyone benefits.

Standifer is a clinical associate professor in the Disability Policy and Studies Office in MU’s School of Health Professions. For disability service providers, he has authored two resources: Adult Autism and Employment: A Guide for Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals and The Handbook of Disabilities. Standifer organized the Autism Works National Conference, which brought together disability employment services providers, employers, and  autism advocates to discuss employment issues facing adults with ASD.

For more information about autism and employment, visit: