A major focus right now in the autism community and a topic that is very important to me is employment for people with disabilities and autism. Right now, we’re learning more about autism and employment, and specifically about high functioning autism and employment. Specifically, we’re learning that lot of times people on the autism spectrum are better able to perform specific types of tasks at work, in which they have a very clear responsibility.
A lot of times, this means repetitive tasks. Tasks that don’t require a lot of personal initiative, but do require the absolute following of directions, and the repetition of a precise set of steps. A lot of this is attention to detail. And in a lot of cases, there are both small groups of educators and businesspeople, as well as large companies, hiring for roles in which people on the autism spectrum can actually be more effective than some people without autism.
Sometimes it’s very hard for some people with autism to hold jobs, and while it may not end up looking like typical employment in the future, there is research on a lot of fronts going into ways that people on the autism spectrum can find jobs and roles that fit, so that they can stay at their jobs for longer periods of time.
I’d say that one of the biggest reasons people with autism tend to struggle with holding jobs is that a large part of those jobs is social interactions with people at work. It’s how well you get along with your co-workers. It’s how well you get along with your manager. It’s how much your manager likes you. This is not a great metric for successful work for some people on the autism spectrum.
For a lot of people on the autism spectrum, they see a job as, “These are the job requirements that I was given.” Maybe it was a writing a document. Maybe it was a creating a briefing for a manager. Or maybe it was putting together or finishing a training program. These are all clear cut job responsibilities — black and white.
The typical response for someone on the autism spectrum when someone asks them to do something that does NOT fit their job description is, “Well, that’s not my job.”
The typical expected response of an employee in that same exact workplace situation is, “Well, he’s the boss. He gets to tell me what to do. And now I have to make an adjustment and do the new work that I was just assigned.”
But I would tend to ask, “why?”
In this example, we have the huge issue of gray area vs. black and white. You’ve given the employee their “guidelines and instructions,” and then you start changing things around on them. That makes it very difficult for with someone on the autism spectrum to really fit in and flourish in the long-term at a place of employment.
People sometimes ask me, “Paul, what if I had a to-do list for you at work and halfway through the day I added a few things, would that bother you? And the answer is – yes, it would bother me.
Absolutely. I would be very bothered.
Of course, this is a case-by-case basis, but it would certainly not be ideal for many people on the spectrum.
If someone were to say “Well, Paul, this just came in and we need to get it done today because it’s more important than your previous task.” Then sure, I’d work hard to understand that. I know that some things just need to get done before others. For some other people on the spectrum, this might be harder to deal with. Often, there’s a lot of resistance to change, and I’ve learned to deal with change as long as I understand the reason for the change. But a lot of people on the autism spectrum are really firm on the fact that all change is bad.
Overall, this sudden change does induce quite a bit of anxiety, but I have learned to cope with the anxiety by trying to understand the root of the change and why it is necessary, in certain cases, to be flexible at a job.
So, in closing, it’s important for employers and other people working with people with autism to understand the issue a lot of us have with sudden change and a lack of certainty. If we can all work to mitigate this sudden change, people with autism would likely have a much easier time flourishing in the workplace.