Autism in the Workplace: Barriers to Employment

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • As more and more people are identified with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), it would stand to reason that more and more people in the workforce have some type of ASD. But according to a survey completed by the National Autistic Society, only 15 percent of adults with autism have full-time paid work, even though 60 percent of those that responded wanted to work and had the ability to work. [1]


    Barriers to Employment

    Getting, and keeping, a job requires more than just the ability to do the work. For individuals with ASD, difficulties with finding employment may begin with the job search and continue through daily functioning during the workday. The following are some of the barriers:

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    Job search: Knowing what job to apply for means understanding and interpreting employment ads. Most qualifications in an ad are divided into two categories: required and preferred. For preferred skills, ads may use words such as “the ideal candidate will have” or “should be familiar with” or “background in preferred.” For skills that are necessary, words such as “required” or “necessary” are usually included. If you are applying for jobs where you don’t have the required skills or education, you probably won’t get an interview. On the other hand, if you eliminate yourself from positions that mention knowledge of an area even though you possess the required skills, you may pass up potential jobs.


    Resumes are an important step toward getting an interview with a potential employer. Resumes are meant to highlight your qualifications but many people try to list every skill, every task and every achievement, giving too much information. For example, your resume might say, “Reorganized file system by arranging files in chronological order rather than alphabetical for increased ability to follow progress of clients.” Instead, you can shorten that statement to “Increased efficiency through reorganization of file system.” Write down all of your skills and achievements and try to shorten each to a few words. If you are having difficulty, ask someone for assistance or talk to a professional resume writer.


    Interview: During an interview, a potential employer wants to know what skills and qualifications you have that would enable you to do the job. Many people with ASD find it difficult to talk about themselves in this way, thinking it is boastful and conceited. But your potential employer wants and needs to know this information. Keep your answers short (not too short) but remember this is your chance to let the interviewer know you can handle the job.


    Potential employers also want to know that you will fit in with the other employees.  This means you need to exhibit certain social skills. Practice non-verbal skills, such as making eye contact, leaning toward the interviewer when he or she is talking, using tone of voice to convey enthusiasm for the job and the company. You may also want to talk briefly about times you worked as a team with others to accomplish tasks. Your appearance at an interview also matters. You should dress neatly, with clean, wrinkle free clothes. A general rule is that you should dress above what the position calls for, for example, if you would be allowed to wear jeans to work, you should dress in slacks and a nice shirt.


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    Interviews often ask questions to find out more about your thinking process. Some questions may be, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “What are some words you would use to describe yourself?” or “What is your biggest weakness and strength?” Sometimes these are abstract questions, which many people with ASD have a difficult time answering because of their rigid thinking. Or you may be too literal or negative in your answers.


    The key to making it through an interview is practice and preparation. There are many books, websites and videos to help you learn the skills you need for a successful interview. Many resources have a list of commonly asked interview questions. Prepare answers to the questions so you are ready for many different types of questions. Ask a friend or relative to role-play interviews with you. In addition, you can work with a career counselor or coach to help improve your interview skills. Keep practicing until you feel comfortable.


    Maintaining a Job: You may have found what you consider the perfect job. You feel comfortable with the work and are confident in your abilities. Even so, keeping a job is more than just doing the work. Employers expect you to “fit in” with co-workers, be able to work well with others and to be able to follow instructions and accept criticism. You may need to complete the work in a certain way, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. There may be times when you have to work closely with others to complete a task or project.


    Besides completing work, an office or work environment may be a constant assault on your senses. You may need to work under bright fluorescent lights, be in a noisy area or find the area too hot or too cold. Hypersensitivities may make your time at work very difficult or intolerable. You may need to talk with your supervisor about ways you can modify your environment to decrease distractions or find ways to compensate for noise.


    Today, many employers are more sensitive to the needs of their employees and are more willing to make modifications or accommodations to help. The Americans with Disabilities Act also offers some protections. Over the next few weeks we will talk about accommodations and modifications that may help and also ways to talk to employers about your autism, if you choose to disclose it.




    “Autism Spectrum Disorders & Employment,” 2012, Jan. Final Report Project, TACE Southeast, Burton Blatt Institute, Syracuse University


    “Employing Adults with Autism: Don’t Write Them Off,” 2009, Louise Tickle,


    [1] “Employment,” Date Unknown, Staff writer, The National Autistic Society (UK)


    “Survival in the Workplace, Date Unknown, Stephen Shore,


Published On: March 19, 2013