The State Of Autism Employment In 2021

 The State Of Autism Employment In 2021

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Painting of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gosset

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gosset, who warned in the early twentieth century against the … [+] complacency and sense of entitlement in Western democracies, as employment lost social roles and meaning.

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(Latest in a series over the past year on the pandemic’s employment impacts, and rebuilding America’s job base. The previous ones are here.)

In Wealth and Poverty, first published in 1981, George Gilder notes the growing calls at the time for guaranteed incomes and guaranteed jobs. Gilder draws on the writing of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gosset, to explain the emptiness of these calls, and the social and individual importance of finding and holding a job—in some ways for adults with developmental differences most of all.  

“A guaranteed job denies the crucial fact that all jobs are to some extent created by the worker. It it is only he who can guarantee the job, by the act of supplying labor, undergoing hardship, achieving distinction, and thus become part of the struggle which human life improves itself.”

Entering 2021, most of the members of our adult autism group of the Bay Area, AASCEND, continue to be out of work, laid off or furloughed from the jobs they had prior to the pandemic. Though they are told to be satisfied with their benefit checks or unemployment checks, they are bored, restless and want to get back to work.

Whether and when they return to work will depend on the same factors that will determine how quickly other workers return to work. So too these factors will determine how quickly the broader system of autism employment initiatives, autism-focused businesses, and the state-level vocational rehabilitation and developmental disability departments will return to pre-pandemic levels. It is an appropriate time to take stock on the state of autism employment.

Below are brief updates on five elements of autism employment, and potential new directions in 2021.

1. Autism employment initiatives with major employers continue to grow in number, but combined they impact a very small percentage of the autism adult population: Over the past five years, more and more autism employment initiatives have been launched by major employers. The most high profile autism employment initiative, “Autism at Work” has grown to 20 of the largest companies in the United States, with the original firms (SAP, Microsoft, EY) joined by JPMorgan Chase, VMWare, Salesforce and others. Still combined, the Autism at Work hires total fewer than 800 adults by the end of 2020. Another 80 or so major employers have autism hiring initiatives outside of Autism at Work, but together they employ fewer than 1500 workers.

For additional hiring initiatives, a promising vehicle is the emerging subindustry of autism workforce intermediaries. These intermediaries—such as Integrate, Next for Autism, Neurodiversity Pathways, The Spectrum Works, Meristem, Daivergent, and Autism Speaks—bring expertise in hiring and retention and are able to aggregate costs across firms. As well as partnering with large firms, they are a means of engaging mid-size and small firms. They might expand their roles to serve as employers of record. The main challenge they face: nearly all of these workforce intermediaries are still searching for a sustainable financial model.

2. Universities, major nonprofits and foundations have lagged behind the private sector in autism hiring, even though, with their missions, they should be at the lead: Universities have been notably absent as participants in autism employment initiatives. So too have private foundations and large nonprofits been absent. This is so even though these institutions often have greater flexibility and more relaxed work environments than other private sector firms, and even though they often congratulate themselves on their diversity and social goals.

These institutions should be the target of advocacy efforts by employees within who are autism advocates, and advocates outside. Universities that receive tens of millions of dollars in autism research, and major nonprofits that receive millions of dollars in social services funds, should be called on to be consistent with their missions in their own hiring processes.

3. “Autism talent advantage” has become a central concept in autism employment, but going forward it needs to be defined far more broadly than the tech skills possessed by a few: Autism talent advantage is a common phrase among advocates, usually associated with technical skills, memory skills, or some forms of savant skills. But the past few years have shown that the technical skills are present in only a small segment of the adult autism population, and the memory and savant skills are not easily fit into the job market. As we are able to look deeper, though, we find other skills and characteristics that are truer job advantages. Dr. Lawrence Fung of Stanford has compiled a strengths-based model of neurodiversity that identifies such strengths as persistence, detail orientation, loyalty, appreciation of the job, honesty. Strengths will differ for each worker, and it is up to job coaches to market the individual skills.

4. We’re learning that “autism friendly workplace” should mean far more than lighting or sound modifications: “Autism friendly workplace” is included in most of the manuals on autism employment, referencing lighting, sound modifications, and quiet spaces. But we’re finding that these physical improvements rarely go to the core obstacles for successful employment. The true “autism friendly” workplace will be one with a culture that balances business needs with forms of greater patience and flexibility.

5. We’re learning the importance of addressing comorbidities that have neurological ties to autism: Perhaps most importantly, going forward we need to confront the powerful mental health comorbidities that undermine employment. Such comorbidities as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder have neurological ties to autism. They bring impediments to job success that are far more serious than failure to make eye contact or understand social cues.

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“All life is the struggle, the effort to be itself. The difficulties which I meet with in order to realize my existence are precisely what awaken and mobilize my activities, my capabilities”, Ortega y Gosset writes in Revolt of the Masses (in the passage that Gilder draws on). In the book, Ortega y Gosset warns of the cultural decline in western democracies. He traces this in part to the complacency and sense of entitlement arising from the absence of economic struggle, the ability of persons to meet material needs without much effort.

In the autism community, we don’t need to worry about complacency, entitlement, or lack of struggle. What we do need to worry about in 2021 is that the Recovery programs coming out of Washington DC will regard employment for adults with autism and other developmental differences as a sidebar, that benefit payments will be considered sufficient. We need to keep an eye on this benefits mindset, especially on the left, as Congress develops its Recovery agenda in the next few months.