Autism and Employment

Autistic and other neurodivergent adults face many challenges living in a world designed by and for neurotypical humans, or those that do not have autism, ADHD, or any developmental disorder. From feeling like they don’t fit in anywhere to being bullied for their neurological differences, they often also meet many unfair and ableist barriers when trying to gain steady employment.

I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, and I suspect I am on the spectrum as my youngest child is as well. While learning this about myself was eye-opening and made many things make sense, I noticed that upon disclosing my identity to others their treatment of me changed, especially that of current and possible future employers. It has the effect of making a person feel alienated and “less than” other adults. It causes depression, anxiety and has lasting effects on one’s mental health on top of ensuring that autistic adults often have a hard time holding jobs if they can get one.

Some barriers to employment that autistic adults deal with are “…not being exposed to work as early as their peers, a lack of employer knowledge about autism, stigma, insufficient capacity, and non-helpful workplace policy” (Nicholas, 2020). Once autistic people find jobs that they are suited for that take advantage of their strengths they often thrive in ways that are both helpful and profitable to the companies they work for. “Despite this emerging evidence demonstrating means to support employment in the autistic population, there continues to be overall low employment rates and reported dissatisfaction about employment prospects among autistic individuals themselves” (Nicholas, 2020).

Other issues that autistic people may deal with regarding employment are related to their sensory sensitivities. Offices and other workplaces can be overwhelming to autistic people due to “…ambient noise of conversation and machinery, the lingering smells from colleagues and food and the incessant flickering of overhead fluorescent lighting can be very aversive. Added to this, a near constant fear of social interaction, interruption from colleagues or machinery and sudden events can mean the autistic person is swiftly inundated” (Harnett, 2019). Living life on high alert trying to be prepared for all those possible interactions and events is exhausting and can make autistic people seem rude because they try to avoid those types of interactions in order to focus on their work, further alienating them from their co-workers and bosses.

With our knowledge about autism and the way it presents is constantly evolving, more and more adults are discovering they have autism. With this spectrum widening, it has grown to include “…those who meet the core criteria for an autism diagnosis but did not have co-occurring intellectual disability and/or early language delays. Consequently, many adults have been identified as autistic later in life having slipped through the diagnostic net in childhood” (Crane, 2020).
There are steps that companies need to take in order to have more inclusive workplaces to this growing field of disabled workers and there is also legislation the government should work to enact to protect autistic and other disabled workers. It is also important that those enacting policies at all levels do so by listening to those who are affected the most by it. “Perhaps one of the greatest changes that has taken place over the last 40 years is the realization that, in order to improve services and support for autistic people and their families, and to ensure that research funding better reflects their priorities, it is crucial to listen to their own voices” (Howlin, 2021).

Though it is getting easier to find information about autistic adults that highlights autistic voices about their experiences, struggles, and support needs, the truth remains that more research is needed about autistic adults and the different social problems they have. “A 2017 review estimated that only around 3.5% of published research on autism involved adults, and the proportion of studies with a focus on adult supports and services is even lower” (Howlin, 2021).
One organization that makes sure to center autistic voices while doing advocacy work around disability laws and employers, as well as offer different toolkits to help autistic adults through many kinds of situations they may face at work and in life, is the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, or ASAN. “ASAN works to make our society more inclusive for autistic people. We work to make sure that autistic people are in control in our own lives and have a say in policies that affect us. We work to protect disability rights and civil rights. We celebrate and promote autistic community and culture. We do this work in many ways, including:
• Policy and legal advocacy
• Making educational resources
• Creating advocacy tools
• Leadership training for autistic self-advocates” (
In 2019 they organized a #WorkWithUs campaign, asking Congress “…to pass the legislation that would finally end subminimum wage and make integrated employment the law of the land,” ( and spoke at the United Nations. They also backed the lawsuit of an autistic woman who was restricted from her law license by the state bar “…because she’d been under guardianship.” ( ASAN filed an amicus brief stating there was no excuse for discrimination and the court agreed, awarding the woman her license. The organization also developed a proxy calling system, most specifically Elizabeth Bartmess. This system has made “…civic engagement accessible to many more members of our community.” (


Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).
Chu, Jeff. (2015). Making It Work. Inc., Vol. 37 Issue 5, 34-110.

Crane, Laura. (2020). Supporting Newly Identified or Diagnosed Autistic Adults: An Initial Evaluation of an Autistic-Led Program

Harnett, Teresa. (2019). Issues in Employment for Autistic Adults: Open Plan Offices. Good Autism Practice.

Howlin, Patricia. (2021). Adults with Autism: Changes in Understanding Since DSM-111. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders. Vol. 51 Issue 12, 4291-4308.

Nicholas, David B. (2020). Employment in Autism: Reflections on the Literature and Steps for Moving Forward. Autism & Developmental Disorders. Vol. 18 Issue 3, 5-11.

Sarrett, Jennifer. (2017). Interviews, Disclosures, and Misperceptions: Autistic Adults’ Perspectives on Employment-Related Challenges. Disability Studies Quarterly. Vol. 37 Issue 2, 6-6.


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