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The Employee with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Video Transcript:

What if I told you that I had a group of potential employees that had great productivity and really cared about the job? People that want to work and take pride in what they accomplish. Would you take a few minutes to learn a little bit more?

I am talking about individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Men and women with autism are moving into the workforce in big numbers. Did you know that between 2014 and 2016 there will be nearly 1 and 1/2 million adults with autism in the US? And unfortunately, the current rates of employment for individuals with autism indicate that unless things change, many of these adults will not be employed. Not even part time. Employment rates for even high functioning individuals with autism may be as little as 12 percent!

This includes those with Asperger Syndrome. What a waste of talent and drive! Especially since individuals with autism have so much to offer!

"Autism" is now a mainstream issue outside of education and medicine.  Many of us now have had some experience with a person or persons identified with autism. But autism is a "spectrum disorder".

So as Stephen Shore, a man with high functioning autism has said, "When you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism". It is not surprising that now we refer to "autism " as "autism spectrum disorders" or "ASD".

The spectrum of autism means that from an early age the individual has had difficulty with understanding the social world. Socialization and social skills do not come easily or naturally. 

Reading the social cues, facial expressions and body language can be difficult. It is more accurate to say that people with autism may be socially awkward - and not "anti-social" as some might suggest.

However, given an opportunity to learn the social expectations for the workplace, employees with ASD are often well liked by both co-workers and supervisors. And time spent socializing is usually held to a minimum.

But the employee with ASD may need to be given specific direction and coaching to understand social rules, boundaries of work relationships and how co-workers want to interact.

"They don't' pick that up on their own so you - you have to teach that."

“They don’t gossip and they don’t lie and so you get a pretty good work ethic with not much slacking off and not a whole lot of chit chat while on the clock."

Clearly communicating these messages is an important, yet simple strategy to creating a successful work environment.

A diagnosis of ASD also implies that the person can have trouble communicating, especially when the messages they are trying to understand are vague, inconsistent or require "reading between the lines".

"People with autism fair better if we give them very straight forward, direct, specific feedback right after the mistake or error or even the job well done. The tend to keep that more in their memory if that is done right afterwards. "

Some of the most difficult communication challenges are those that require reading body language or facial expression along with the spoken word. However, these messages can be explained and often times the work place vocabulary can be taught.

"He goes to a speech coach and we have met as a group and talked about things that like answering the phone scripts, written u scripts and they that that to the voice people and they work on those things. "

It should just not be assumed that the person is going to understand or be able to figure it out from the very first day on the job.

And while some people with ASD can carry on a lengthy conversation, others may have very little speech. These individuals, however, may understand much more than they can explain and will often have an alternative communication system that includes picture supports or communication devices. 

So, no matter if the challenge lies in understanding or speaking, employees with ASD have demonstrated they are fully capable of overcoming communication issues to successfully do the job.

People with ASD tend to like routine. In fact, being a "routined" individual is part of the definition of ASD. People with ASD may rely on this type of organization in their daily life.

"For Travis I made him a to-do list, a checklist, it was actually a time detailed list every day of where he" needed to be at certain times of the day. He has finally picked up on that a little more and is doing better at being in the particular places in the building each day.

Routine and perfectionism can go together too. Many people with ASD want their work to be "just right". They take pride in it being perfect. Routine and perfectionism is an advantage in the workforce where we depend on employees to follow established protocols and guidelines.

One of the characteristics that many people with ASD describe is the sensitivity they can have to the environment. People with ASD can have difficulty with too much noise or commotion. Or maybe certain lighting. Or crowds of people. Some people have clothing preferences or specific food choices.

"At first loud noises - like one day they were working on the elevator he was talking about how loud it was and I never really thought about it then next day he came with ear plugs and so I was like, OK"

On the other hand there may be some aspects of a work place that others find uncomfortable that the person with ASD may not react to at all. For example, having to move frequently and consistently all day may bring complaints from many, however some people with ASD look forward to a job that requires them to be on the go. The point here is that while there can be sensory sensitivities, these are not the same for everyone and can vary day to day. The key is to be proactive and identify the potential sensory issues. 

"Some people with autism are hypo sensitive and seek that kind of sensory input and others are hyper sensitive to sensory input and each person is different along those  five senses. So it is really an individual basis how to discern what is best for the work environment. With Anthony for instance, he doesn't have any problem with the water and the dishwashing and he likes that. We have another person who does not like to put his hand in the water. So we made sure with the Department of Health that we could use those kinds of brushes that have a holder..handle..so he does not have to put his hand in the water with a typical food service sponge. "

Most people with ASD have found that by making a good match of their employment environment, they are able to handle these sensory issues with reasonable accommodations.

So what might an employer need to consider doing to accommodate an employee with an autism spectrum disorder? First, let's not pretend that you need to just open your doors and the person will find a way to fit in.

That generally does not work. However, it is sometimes much easier and more reasonable than you imagine and the benefits will outweigh the adjustments needed!

So accommodations take on a variety of forms.

One thing that is very helpful is putting information in a visual format, like checklists, or simple post-it notes reminders or even a printed schedule to follow.

Timers, clocks or watches - easy to use like this - they simply help people stay on track.

Clearly articulating a message or request is something that employers or supervisors learn to do. Some people need this in writing - like an email.

(Computer generated voice) "Hi Casey, My recycle box is full. Can you pick mine up today? Thank you , Laura".

Others are fine with verbal interaction.  But assuring that the individual with autism understood is what the employer or supervisor may want to focus on. Once that clear communication system is established, it just becomes part of the daily routine.

"And then he emails - emails regularly. At the end of every day he sends emails out to all of us and the people down in distribution about the issues he encountered when he was working. "

Routines may be part of your business day and that can work in your favor. Providing the employee with autism the routine in writing and then giving them time to experience it can be all the accommodation that some will need. If the routine changes, that too can be explained by a visual schedule and makes the changes much easier to understand and accept.

Social accommodations really mean teaching the employee the expectations of the workplace. You may do this through employee orientation. Or often a new employee will simply observe and learn. However the employee with autism may need to be given direct information. For example, most employees learn quickly from the disapproving look of a co-worker that "reading someone else's email over their shoulder is not allowed". Instead, the employee with ASD may need to be told this message directly.

"The guys as a group they are all in one office, so they do help get him going - he will get off on the wrong foot or not handle the situation quite the way it needed to be handled and they will talk with him and then guide him in the right direction. He goes and he will take care of it at the point the right way. But they will guide him and tell him what he needs to do if he gets off on the wrong foot. "

There are many subtle social expectations in a job that we just learn and learn quickly! Things like when it is best to talk to the boss..And when not to! Who sits where in the lunchroom? How loud to talk. Cleaning up your mess in the coffee area. Checking personal email. Respecting personal space. And many many more.

Accommodations are about creating a way to clearly make these expectations understood and not just expect the person with autism to "get it". Oh, and by the way, how many other employees could benefit from this type of "communication system?"

In the last few minutes you have learned a little more about autism spectrum disorders. Characteristics related to communication, socialization and sensory sensitivities are all part of what we call "autism". Supports can be incorporated into the workplace to address these features, but looking past an isolated characteristic to the potential of the individual is where employers will find benefit.

View the person with ASD as unique and their differences as a way of understanding and interacting with the world.

Look for the strengths of the individual - strengths that will benefit an organization or business.

Recognize the potential of a person that thrives on routine, wants the job to be done right, and can learn when given the right supports. 

"They are capable of so much, you just you want them to do it your way, and it doesn't work that way, but it can still get done!"

Potential is only limited when we allow a barrier to stop us. Being realistic does not mean accepting another person's definition of possible. Being realistic is knowing how to reach the possibilities.

Of course, as an employer, your choices must reflect sound business decisions.  Employing people with autism is a smart business move.

"He clocks in on time every day and clocks out on time everyday and I've got eight other employees I can't get to do that. He is very adamant about being on time and if he is going to be late he calls me the night before, if the bus schedule is running late he calls me and he is very very adamant about being here when he is supposed to be and doing what he is supposed to when he is supposed to do it. "

"No it won't happen overnight but once you achieve that goal, you've got a person any given day that you can make the phone call or say, " Hey I need for you to do this" and you know that it will be done. "

"There's a lot of capabilities into these kid that you just don't realize, you just have to tap the right one. "

"And one of the things that we have appreciated the most about employing people with autism is the excellent attendance rate and the retention. You can count on that person to be there when they are supposed to be there and they come every day.

Brian's very punctual, he's here when he's supposed to be here."

The Workforce benefits from the qualities and talents that people with autism spectrum disorders can bring to organizations - and the community in general.

"We have a  lot of members that come through the building that see Travis and have gotten to know Travis, It's kind of a member relation building thing for us. If they don't see Travis in here on a certain day they are going to ask, "Where's Travis at?" So it kind of gives a connected feel for us with the community. "

Over time, the simple accommodations that may be needed can seem as natural to the work environment as any other aspect of the job.

Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's was quoted as saying, "You are only as good as the people you hire".   If that's true, people with autism, with their strengths and unique perspectives should be a critical component of any workforce. It just makes good business sense!

Employer Tool-Kit

The Employer Tool Kit includes companion resources to the employer video which is designed to briefly introduce the employee with ASD.  The employer (or others that view the movie) can then select additional resources from the Employer Toolkit in order to:

  • Gain a broader understanding of ASD
  • Identify strategies or accommodations to support the individual with ASD
  • Be better prepared to support co-workers, supervisors or others that will be interacting with the employee with ASD

The Tool Kit is a group of web-based resources that can assist employers or potential employers of individuals with ASD, vocational specialist, job coaches or others that support individuals with ASD to obtain or maintain employment.

The Employer Tool Kit includes:

  1. Autism Internet Modules (AIM)
    AIM is a free, on-line resource that provides a variety of modules written by experts from across the U.S. designed to promote understanding of and respect for persons with ASD. Modules that focus on aspects of employment include: Preparing Individuals for Employment, Employee with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Task Analysis, Social Supports for Transition Age Individuals, and Rules and Routines.
    http://www.autisminternetmodules.org/
  2. OCALI Transition to Adulthood Guidelines: Employment Booklet
    This volume of the OCALI transition guidelines, includes information and considerations for those seeking employment or for those currently employed. Implications for the individual with ASD are highlighted as well as resources for improving career development and employment support. The goal of this volume is to help the user understand  the issues surrounding  successful employment for the individual with ASD and to highlight the supports and resources  that lead to and assist in maintaining meaningful employment.
    http://www.ocali.org/center/transitions
  3. F. I. T. for Success: Five Important Targets for Success on the Job
    This short booklet developed by OCALI introduces the employer to the Five Important Targets (F.I.T.) for employment success for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Assuring these five critical areas have been addressed will improve the likelihood of a good overall job match with more successful and fulfilling employment outcomes.
    Download PDF
  4. JobTIPS by Do2Learn
    JobTIPS is a free web based program designed to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other learning differences explore career interests, seek and obtain employment, and successfully maintain employment. JobTIPS addresses the social and behavioral differences that might make identifying, obtaining, and keeping a job more difficult for you. Though JobTIPS is designed for direct use by individuals with learning differences, this program (including all of the printables, assessments, and videos) is highly suitable for delivery by educators , family members, clinicians, mentors, and job coaches
    http://www.do2learn.com/JobTIPS/index.html
  5. Adult Autism And Employment: A Guide For Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals by Scott Standifer, Ph.D.
    This is a guide for vocational rehabilitation professionals, which includes a synthesis of existing literature and promising practices on autism and employment. Practical strategies are included in this guide. Teachers, paraprofessionals and parents may also find this information helpful in planning for the transition to adulthood and specifically for post-secondary employment.
    http://www.dps.missouri.edu/Autism.html
  6. Accommodation And Compliance Series: Employees With Asperger Syndrome by JAN
    The Job Accommodations Network's Accommodation and Compliance Series is designed to help employers determine effective accommodations and comply with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This short document helps explain Asperger Syndrome to employers as well as some accommodations that may be used to assist the employee with Asperger Syndrome to be successful in the workplace.
    http://askjan.org/media/asperger.html
  7. Supporting Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Quality Employment Practices by Alan Kurtz And Melanie Jordan
    This is an "Institute Brief" from the Institute for Community Inclusion in Boston, Massachusetts. The Brief contains a short overview of the types of accommodations that a person with ASD might need in the employment setting in order to be successful. Categories reviewed include: Communication, Sensory, Social, Organization, and support for the employment specialist. Strategies for job development are also included.
    http://www.communityinclusion.org/article.php?article_id=266
  8. Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Job Accommodations Network
    JAN's Accommodation and Compliance Series is designed to help employers determine effective accommodations and comply with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each publication in the series addresses a specific medical condition and provides information about the condition, ADA information, accommodation ideas, and resources for additional information. This booklet is specific to Autism Spectrum Disorder.
    http://askjan.org/media/autism.htm
  9. Working in the Community, A Guide for Employers of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Alpine Learning Group
    This manual was created by the Alpine Learning Group and is designed to provide a general overview of the characteristics of autism and general procedures to enhance the volunteer or job experiences of individuals with autism. The manual provides of a variety strategies and accommodations and includes a chapter that focuses on the use of Applied Behavior Analysis in the workplace.
    http://www.alpinelearninggroup.org/latest-publications
  10. When Existing Jobs Don’t Fit: A Guide to Job Creation by Colleen Condon, Lara Enein-Donovan, Marianne Gilmore and Melanie Jordan
    Successful job development for people with disabilities is about meeting the specific and often unique needs of each job seeker. Job creation is a way to modify or restructure existing jobs or bring together a combination of job tasks that fill the work needs of an employer while capitalizing on the skills and strengths of workers with significant disabilities.
    http://www.communityinclusion.org/article.php?article_id=126&type=topic&id=3
  11. Vocational Rehabilitation And Autism Spectrum Disorders Project
    This web site focuses on issues and strategies for improving employment outcomes for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. The project aims to generate new knowledge and provide information concerning what works in accessing and maintaining employment placements for people with autism.
    http://autism.sedl.org/