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The Changing Employment Scene for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Sowmya Nath
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date Last Revised: 
April 3, 2013
Date Published: 
March 7, 2013

Finding meaningful employment is hard for everyone, but people on the autism spectrum often face additional challenges. Only 39 to 42 percent of clients of the United States vocational rehabilitation system with ASD were able to find jobs between 2002 and 20061. In addition, many who are employed are overqualified for their positions or may have trouble holding on to them2. Though there is little research to inform us about the availability and effectiveness of vocational interventions for people on the spectrum3, there is some good news. The private and public sectors are working to provide more help in the transition from school to work, more employment opportunities for adults with ASD, and better working environments.

The challenges and opportunities

Thorkil Sonne, the founder of Specialisterne-- a Denmark-based global technology company that trains high functioning people with ASD for placement in the corporate sector-- tells IAN that although people spend a significant part of their lives working, there has been little investment in providing services for adults with ASD that help them transition from school to the workplace.

"For many employers, there's a stigma about hiring people with disabilities," says Ami Taubenfeld, executive director of Itineris, a Baltimore non-profit working to provide employment opportunities to adults with ASD. "We are trying to change this mentality, slowly but surely, by educating them as to the unique gifts and benefits that our clients can bring to the workplace."

The benefits to employers, as many advocates like Taubenfeld and Sonne say, are the strengths that those with ASD bring to their work.

"Generally, they have good memory, they have attention to detail, they are good at pattern recognition, they are good at structured work. They are really nice to work with because they are so open and honest and loyal to get the job done," Sonne says.

Besides, helping adults with autism find and maintain meaningful employment can save families and taxpayers the costs associated with providing daytime aides, healthcare, and housing subsidies estimated at over $1 million over an adult's lifetime4.

Transitioning from school to work

Dr. Scott Standifer, a clinical associate professor at the School of Health Professions at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says that a lack of awareness of employment resources, a lack of planning by the individuals combined with discrimination against those with disabilities are factors that prevent adults with ASD from having sustained and successful careers5.

"They need to be experiencing the workplace early on and understanding the difference between work and school. The routines, the responsibilities and expectations are going to be very different," he explains. "The daily schedule is different, the performance expectations are different, the level of personal responsibility is different. This can throw some people off."

He suggests that those in high school should talk to people working in careers that interest them, visit organizations involved in that area of work, and gain experience through volunteer or part-time work.

Handling the job search

Dr. Standifer points out that one of the most valuable resources in the United States are the state agencies called Vocational Rehabilitation Services. These agencies help those with disabilities prepare for suitable jobs and assist them with the job search. He says that for every dollar spent helping people with disabilities find employment, federal state and local governments get back $7 in taxes and savings on other disability services6.

Vocational rehabilitation programs and non-profits like Itineris offer individuals practice with the interview, because this process can be extremely difficult for people on the spectrum. They also work with potential employers to change how and where interviews occur. For example, potential employers can be trained to provide an appropriate setting for the interview and change its format so that individuals with ASD are more comfortable.

"Associated with the interview process is the related problem of communicating their potential to do the work, especially if they have not done similar jobs in the past," Dr. Standifer says. "It takes a lot for an employer to look past the communication and experience issues and take a chance on whether the person can do the job well or not."

There are a number of organizations that have made an effort to include adults with ASD and other disabilities, such as Walgreens and AMC Theatres. They do so by taking the needs of those with disabilities into account during the recruitment process and also on the job, once the candidate is hired.

AMC Theatres, for example, has replaced its traditional job interview with one that may be better-suited to people on the spectrum. During the interview, the manager takes the applicant on a walking tour of a theater so that they can experience the sensory environment in different parts of the building (quiet versus loud areas, dimly- and brightly -lit sections, etc.). The applicant then has the opportunity to talk about the physical space they would prefer to work in. And instead of traditional abstract interview questions like, "What would you do if you found $20?", the interviewer asks concrete questions such as, "If we show you how to hand in money you find here, would you be willing to do that?"7.

Workplace supports

Even after finding a job, people on the spectrum may not get the support that they need.

Tom Whalen, who is currently looking for paid employment through Itineris, has held one job so far.

"There were no rules as to what to do on a job. I managed to hold on a month and half," he explains.

Dr. Standifer points out that adults with ASD need concrete instructions about their tasks from their managers. Sonne adds that Specialisterne asks its corporate partners to be direct and not include irony or sarcasm when speaking as it can be misunderstood.

Dr. Standifer says organizations are also taking measures to provide on-the-job supports. For example, Walgreens employees are given visual instructions and have the option to take short breaks from work when they feel stressed8.

"They're embedding corporate supports and they're building a supportive and more accommodating workplace and inviting people to join them," Dr. Standifer explains.

He says other companies, such as Lowe's Procter & Gamble and Best Buy, are now starting to model these practices9.

"The goal is to make them [individuals with autism] productive members of society," Caroline Hubbard, director of Clinical Services at Itineris, says. "They are certainly entitled to jobs, be a part of their community, to fitness, to choice and their own person-centered direction just like you and I. They have the same rights and abilities that we have."

Additional Resources


  1. Cimera, R.E., Cowan, R.J. (2009). The cost of services and employment outcomes achieved by adults with autism in the US. Autism, 13(3), 285-302 View Abstract
  2. Shattuck, P., Narendorf, S. C., Cooper, B., Sterzing, P. R., Wagner, M., Taylor, J. L. (2012). Postsecondary education and employment among youth with an autism spectrum disorder. Pediatrics, 129(6), 1042-1049. View Abstract
  3. Taylor, J.L., McPheeters, M.L., Sathe, N.A., Dove, D., Veenstra-Vandeweele, J., Warren, Z. (2012). A systematic review of vocational interventions for young adults with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 130(3), 531-538. View Abstract
  4. Harmon, A. (2011, September 17). Autistic and seeking a place in an adult world. The New York Times. Retrieved December 11, 2012, from
  5. Standifer, S. (2009). Adult Autism & Employment: A Guide for Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals. Disability Policy and Studies, School of Health Professions, University of Missouri Health System. Retrieved November 28, 2012 from
  6. Standifer, S. (2010) Overview of Some Adult Disability Services for People with Autism. Disability Policy and Studies, School of Health Professions, University of Missouri Health System. Retrieved March 5, 2013 from
  7. Standifer, S. (March 2012). AMC Theatres' FOCUS program: Making a difference, Autism Works National Conference. Disability Policy and Studies, School of Health Professions, University of Missouri Health System. Retrieved March 5, 2013 from
  8. Hamel, S. Walgreen's center puts people with disabilities to work. (n.d.). State of the Spectrum. Retrieved March 5, 2013, from
  9. Otto, B. (January 14, 2013). Walgreens is not always the answer. The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 5, 2013, from

Photo credit: pennstatenews / / CC BY-NC.

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