By Mike Matejka
Did you use a cellphone or GPS today? Thank someone with autism for that technology. There is strong evidence that the great scientist Albert Einstein, whose theories rearranged our understanding of physics and its properties, might be diagnosed today with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
One in 68 children is the most recent diagnostic rate for ASD. The stereotype of ASD is an individual rocking in the corner, but the autism spectrum includes a wide range of people with normal intelligence and language to those with more severe disabilities.
ASD is best thought of as a social communication disorder. People with ASD often have a difficult time with direct communication, speech, or facial recognition. That does not mean they aren’t intelligent, but it does mean that communication is their challenge.
As the ASD diagnoses rate continues to increase, what happens to these individuals when they turn 18? Can they hold a job and support themselves? The answer is yes! People on the autism spectrum can make great workers, provided they have a comfortable environment and proper support.
Systematic work in a regular environment is what many ASD individuals thrive on. Depending on their education and skill level, they often excel as computer programmers, data entry workers, engineers, coders, librarians, and chefs. Precision with complex, often repetitive, tasks is something they do very well.
Locally, there are many autistic individuals who have successful careers. Loretta loves to do data entry and proofreading; she is praised by her supervisors for her precision. Because of her autism, she is not interested in casual conversation, but instead, concentrates on the task at hand. Alex works for an area insurance company, doing filing and other office tasks. Brian works in the laundry room at a large hotel, one of the establishment’s most faithful and cheerful employees.
These are not charity jobs; rather, these individuals are valued by their employers because they arrive promptly, are eager to work, and concentrate on their assigned tasks. In many cases, the job they do may not appeal to others, but the work’s repetition builds a sense of security for these individuals.
What are the keys to success, for both the employer and the individual with ASD? In the interview process, a quiet environment and some understanding of the person with ASD, either from their comments, family, or support people, will smooth the process. Some individuals on the spectrum don’t always make good eye contact. That should not be taken by the interviewer as a lack of interest; rather, it is another social communication deficit.
Clear and precise instructions are needed, so the individual knows what is required in their job assignment. People with ASD are not good at “reading between the lines.” They need to know their assignments and have a clear order and direction for those. Also, giving them multiple tasks at one time will be confusing; a clear outline of what to do and when to do it is essential.
This need for clarity is critical for co-workers to understand. Unless people with ASD self-disclose their diagnosis, other workers may assume this individual is aloof or strange. If co-workers understand ASD, then those fellow workers will know that most people with ASD want clear and precise instruction. Some individuals with ASD do not like touch, especially unexpected touch. Some occasionally need to flap their arms or hands to then concentrate. If co-workers are aware of these nuances, then understanding, acceptance, and support is possible.
Occasionally some adaptations are needed, but these are usually not elaborate. Often they include a protocol for discussion of work tasks. Some individual might need their instructions in writing. Some may want a signal when others want to talk to them. Sound-deadening earphones help some autistic individuals concentrate without being annoyed by ambient noise. Simple workplace protocols will helps smooth relationships and insure everyone is comfortable with each other’s quirks and needs.
Everyone wants a role and a place in society. Loretta said, “Having a job means having a means of supporting myself should I choose or need to live on my own. It is also a way of being of help to someone else or to the larger society.” With a 1 in 68 diagnostic rate, now is the time for employers to begin adapting to this workforce. The willingness to work is there.
Mike Matejka is the parent of a daughter with high-functioning autism. To learn more about support for autism employment at your workplace, contact Marcfirst at 309-451-8888. Marcfirst is a not-for-profit agency dedicated to people with developmental disabilities. To set up an autism awareness session, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit: autismmclean.org or marcfirst.org