It goes without saying that autistic people should have reasonable access to gainful employment in a supportive and understanding workplace. How ‘inclusive’ is it when people automatically assume the most suitable jobs for autistics are always in the tech industry? What about those of us who are lucky enough to just be able to navigate the basic functions of our computers or electronic devices and are employed or seeking employment in non-tech industries? Are we not worthy of support and accommodation? Don’t we deserve the job or career that best suits us? All I know is society still has a long way to go in embracing other employment sectors…
Don’t get me wrong, I think the initiatives some companies like Microsoft and Specialisterne have taken in hiring autistic people is certainly a step in the right direction. After all, it really is no secret that many skilled autistic people are unemployed or under-employed. I do wonder what it would be like if ALL sectors of working society began to change and expand upon their hiring methods to include more autistics including people with disabilities who are not necessarily tech adept but have strengths in other professions.
Believe it or not there are many of us on the autism spectrum who would be utterly useless working in tech jobs, and I am one of them. One is practicing stereotyping when they assume just because a person is autistic, it means they excel at specific skills such as computers or math. Of course there are plenty of autistic people who excel at these things, after all stereotypes have truth to them, but the truth may not be accurate of everyone in that particular population.
The average person may not yet recognize this, but there are autistic people working or searching for work in the helping professions, teaching, retail (and the wider service industry), arts and music, trades, and even in business. Many are or wish to be self-employed. These are just some examples and I am barely scratching the surface. We can and do work in almost every industry. If an autistic person is given the chance to do a job that matches with their strengths and abilities, no matter what industry this is in, they should have access and accommodations in place so they can perform at their best.
So I ask others to please stop assuming that we are all equipped to work with computers! For myself Cookies are scrumptious, gooey, goodies I like to eat fresh out of the oven, Java is just another word for coffee, and coding is a different language. My abilities are in student support work, advocacy, and in writing. While I need to know how to use the computer in my work on a basic level, there is someone else who is getting paid to fix and program them.
While a lot of us less techy autistic people can do a lot of basic tasks on our devices (and don’t get me wrong I do like using them), we are still better off calling tech support for help rather than applying to work in a tech support department. Hence, whenever I come across yet another online article about how magnificent it is that such and such company is hiring autistic people, I automatically roll my eyes and shake my head because I know it’s always something connected to the tech industry.
Often they call for ‘high functioning*’ autistic people, or are orchestrated in a ‘sheltered workshop’ setting that usually pays lower than minimum wage for those with more support needs including those who have intellectual disabilities (so called ‘low functioning*’ people) and can be extremely infantilizing. These are adult workers who deserve to be treated like adults. (For more information on sheltered workshops, you can read this excellent two part article here by American advocate Ari Ne’eman: https://arineeman.com/2015/09/20/sheltered-workshops-part-1/ )
Where I reside I often see people with a variety of disabilities doing newspaper routes, other people’s yardwork, and working in charity shops. I cannot help to wonder how satisfied they are with their jobs or if anyone has ever asked them what THEY would like to do. This can be based on what interests them and what skills they have, but I utterly doubt this has been considered because that takes money, resources, and other people putting themselves in their shoes. I am sure some may enjoy the work they do. Personally I do hope they are getting paid properly once they are trained for these jobs otherwise we’re talking serious discrimination. A lot of non-disabled people probably aren’t even aware of how dehumanizing these practices are and probably think all of this is a progressive step in the right direction. It really isn’t.
When I make a comment on a social media post pertaining to the topic of hiring more autistic people in the tech industry and expressing my irritation for this kind of stereotyping, someone often gets dismissive and misses my point completely by saying, ‘well it’s a positive step and better than nothing’. Yeah? No kidding. I know, and I am aware. I truly think it’s great for autistic people who are suited for a job in tech and I am not discounting it. However, if we want a more inclusive workforce in general, focusing on only one specific career for a certain population doesn’t help the autistic people who are STILL stuck with nothing and unable to find meaningful work because the industry they are interested in will not consider them at all, or they struggle to even make it through the initial interview.
Companies and organizations need to take the same lead as the tech sector is already embracing. For example, I personally believe if employers like my own hired more autistic people it would be of great benefit due to the nature of my work in education and support that is a very neurodiverse population of learner’s including a lot of autistics. I wonder, wouldn’t it make sense if the staff were just as diverse as the students they support in order for the students to receive the support and understanding they need by those that have similar lived experiences? One of the reasons I work well with the students I support is because I understand them and I am quick to realize what they need in order to improve their learning.
There are steps being taken to change this which brings me optimism. One particular person in the autism community who is working hard to shift the employment paradigm is my friend and fellow sister on the spectrum Samantha Craft from Washington State, a former schoolteacher and the author of the book and blog Everyday Asperger’s. While Ms. Craft works in the tech industry herself as a recruiter and community manager for others seeking employment, she was open, understanding, and receptive when I and others mentioned that there are other non-tech related jobs out there suited for us in which we can excel and succeed at with the right support. She agreed, and made a point to mention it in her upcoming manuscript, Autism in a Briefcase. Ms. Craft plans to use this manuscript to develop future webinars in her consulting work. This will be an excellent resource tool as it goes into great depth and detail on how different businesses and organizations can hire and keep autistic workers by providing them with a workplace where they can learn, thrive, and succeed. It is a program designed for business owners, personnel responsible for hiring employees, and autistic individuals themselves. A program like this is important because it is comprehensive and full of ideas on how to plan out and create an inclusive workplace for not just autistic people, but for everyone, and how to hire individuals with differences in ways that highlight their strengths. The strategies Ms. Craft has designed and proposed do not just tell employers how to improve their practices, it also shows them how to use the tools given and put them in action to create an inclusive environment where everyone, regardless of their support needs, is encouraged and accepted.
Autistic people are as unique from one another as any other individuals, and when it comes to employment, there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all.’ In a Facebook post written in July of 2017, Samantha Craft wrote:
“When thinking of advancement and growth in society, it is beneficial to address the whole and make changes for the good of all instead of narrowing down what is in need of fixing for one select subgroup of society. The current methods by which agency leaders and vocational support personnel overgeneralize, by implying all autistics are in need of the same assistance, is far outside the boundaries of equality.”
(Shared with kind permission from the author.)
If more employers considered the benefits of a neurodiverse team of employees and started following the lead of the tech industries that hire autistic people, we would be far better off. Autistic people have a lot to offer and when given the chance, many go above and beyond all expectations, whether it’s in the tech industry or not. Inclusion means everybody, everywhere. It means ALL of us.
Some books on employment written by people on the spectrum:
Asperger’s on the Job by Rudy Simone (Future Horizons)
The Wonderful World of Work by Jeanette Purkis (JKP)
*I use the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ functioning in quotations because I abhor functioning labels and believe when you label people as such they do not get their needs met. Those deemed high functioning have their challenges ignored and are not taken seriously when seeking out supports and those deemed low functioning are often presumed incompetent and are not given any agency in their own lives.*
About Jen Elcheson
Jen was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 1998, back when very few people were diagnosed, let alone females. She has devoted her life to supporting and mentoring children on the spectrum. She currently works as an Education Assistant for the public school system, and as an assistant caregiver at a small daycare. Jen also runs an online support group, has written articles for AAN magazine, and is a lifelong music fan, especially metal and classic rock. Jen lives in northern British Columbia in Western Canada with her two ball pythons.