This post is by Marcia Scheiner, the President and Founder of Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership.
With the current estimate that 80% of individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are under the age of 18, the next ten years will see a wave of adults on the spectrum entering the workforce. Today’s reality is, however, that most of these adults will never achieve full employment. Of those that do find jobs, many will be underemployed. The data is not encouraging. In a 2008 study of 200 families with transition age and adult children with an ASD, conducted by the University of Miami/Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, 74% of the respondents were unemployed and 74% of those employed worked less than 20 hours a week. These facts must serve as a call to arms for advocates in the autism community. As the population of individuals with autism matures, so must the movement that has pushed so successfully to develop programs and resources for children on the spectrum. While the focus on adult issues – employment, housing, financial planning – is growing, we are still running to catch up with the needs of our adults with autism.
In 2010 I founded the Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership (ASTEP) with the mission of creating and supporting programs that result in long term (and appropriately challenging) employment for adults with Asperger Syndrome and high functioning autism. Our focus is on educating large national employers about the benefits of employing individuals on the autism spectrum and the accommodations they made need. Corporate America is certainly aware of autism, with the majority of companies showing their support through sponsorship of autism awareness events and donations to autism related non-profits. Less common, however, are strategic initiatives to include individuals with autism in corporate diversity hiring practices.
So why should a company take that next step from autism donor to employer of individuals on the spectrum? The answers are surprisingly easy. The economic dynamics of the autism marketplace and workforce should be important to companies. Individuals with autism and their immediate family members comprise a significant market share in the U.S. ASTEP conservatively estimates that 10.5 million people, or 3.4% of the U.S. population, are touched by autism. Companies known for employing individuals with autism (e.g. Walgreen’s) draw dedicated customers from this group, because they reinforce both the economic and societal value of employing individuals with autism. Additionally, studies such as the Ken’s Kids program implemented by Home Depot have shown that people with autism are loyal and productive employees. Hiring individuals with autism is a great way to alleviate corporations’ struggle with the high costs of turnover and lack of productivity they currently encounter.
So with the benefits being obvious, why aren’t more companies hiring individuals with autism. The reason is twofold – lack of education and access. For those companies that want to hire individuals with autism, they cannot make this transition alone. The support of vocational specialists and autism organizations are critical in educating employers not only about the benefits of hiring individuals with autism, but the challenges they face and the accommodations they will need for a successful work experience. For those companies that have not thought about individuals with autism as a potential employee source, advocacy by parents of children with autism within their workplace will be a key factor in changing that view. It is the responsibility of all of these groups to educate employers on all of the benefits of employing individuals with autism and support them through the recruiting and integration process.