If there was a group with an unemployment rate of 80%, there would undoubtedly be a complete outcry and a demand for social justice. You would think. And yet, various research reports estimate the unemployment rate for working adults with autism to be around 80%.
Let me introduce myself. I have a bachelor’s degree in recombinant gene technology, a master’s degree in English, and a doctorate in humanities—and I’m autistic.
I currently work at the Dallas Museum of Art as a Gallery Supervisor, where I worked for over three years, first as a Gallery Custodian, and now as a Supervisor. It’s the longest time I’ve held a single job, and it was the first employer who promoted me.
The DMA is to be congratulated for having hired several autistic gallerists and for having given us a real opportunity to evolve within the department. However, most companies are not like that at all.
Since obtaining my doctorate, I have worked as an assistant professor at several area colleges, as a lecturer at UNT-Dallas for a year, and through employment agencies. Sometimes I even got freelance work.
You would think someone with a Ph.D. would have no difficulty finding or keeping a job. It turns out that being autistic has a much bigger impact on job prospects than having a PhD. But with a little understanding and accommodation, employers would find autistic people a wellspring of hard workers who can bolster a company’s workforce with a different way of thinking.
Of course, most of the time I don’t even walk in the door. In interviews, I’m expected to make eye contact, not look around, be outgoing or at least not show social anxiety, and have immediate recall and ultra-fast reflexes when answering questions. The employers decided against me in just a few minutes.
It doesn’t help that those of us with autism can see through the interview game. For example, everyone answers the question: “What do you consider to be a weakness in yourself?” with a strength they see as a weakness, so it’s a pointless question. People like me have a hard time taking it seriously. We consider this to be an unnecessary ritual that selects qualified people to go through unnecessary rituals rather than selecting qualified people for the job in question.
How, then, do you think we would do in an interview?
If we manage to get hired, then we have to face the fact that almost all jobs are about 90% social and 10% real work. If there’s one thing you can say about people with autism, it’s that we’re going to work.
However, we also have social anxiety. It will take us forever to feel comfortable with our new colleagues. We’ll probably hang on to our trainer, but we won’t know how to interact with anyone else.
Also, while others are socializing, we will be working. If someone tries to socialize with us while we’re working, we’ll nod our heads in acknowledgment and then try to get back to work. Invite us over for a drink after work and we’ll probably turn you down – usually so often that by the time we want to go you’ll have stopped asking.
Who wants to work with someone like that? What if you try to explain that you have autism? Few employers offer accommodations.
But it’s getting worse. Many of us have attention deficit disorder, so our minds are everywhere all the time. I take a notepad with me to jot down ideas for stories and poems, for example. I did this when I worked in an office. I do this because, if I don’t write down the idea, I will become obsessed with the idea and unable to concentrate on my work. Taking notes is clearing your mind to work. But imagine your boss sees you writing something in your own notebook or clipboard. What does it look like?
People with autism have a lot to offer the world of work, but they are rarely given a real chance. Rather than using the tired old interview ritual, how about having a conversation with potential employees? Rather than paying attention to how a person works, why not pay attention to the quantity and quality of output? Rather than having the same social expectations for everyone, why not understand that people are different and bring a variety of ideas and understandings precisely because their brains are different and process the world differently?
People with autism do well as programmers, but most of us aren’t programmers. We must also have the chance to contribute to the wider world of work. The real shame is that not only are we missing something, but companies are also missing a stronger workforce.
Troy Camplin is a gallery supervisor at the Dallas Museum of Art who has autism and is raising an autistic son. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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