What People with Autism Wish Their Employers Knew
Pictured: Woman wearing headphones working on multiple screens/Antonio_Diaz/iStock
For people with autism spectrum disorder, working in STEM can seem much more appealing than other fields. A 2013 study published in the NIH’s National Library of Medicine found that 34% of college students with autism chose a STEM major versus 22% of all other students.
John Ricco, co-founder of Atlantic Group Recruiting, told BioSpace that in his experience, employees with autism spectrum disorder often possess a unique skill set that employers can benefit from, including attention to detail, innovative problem solving and a strong work ethic.
These skills are especially “valuable assets in research and development, quality control and data analysis,” he said.
But this interest and potential value of autistic individuals isn’t translating to the workplace. Though statistics from reliable sources in this area are hard to come by, myriad publications, from The Washington Post to Politico, have reported on the difficulty educated adults with autism face finding and keeping a full-time job.
Angela Andrews is an autistic speaker and author and manager of the Insights & Solutions team at Johnson & Johnson. She told BioSpace she has an idea of why autistic people may struggle to succeed at work.
“The number one reason is a lack of accommodation.”
She added that accommodations at work for people with ASD are often relatively simple, such as providing a more secluded workspace or more options for remote work. Still, she said these accommodations can be more difficult for autistic employees to obtain than those with physical disabilities because autism is often not obvious to others.
As such, she said, many employers view accommodations for autistic employees as special treatment.
“It’s not special treatment any more than giving a ramp to someone in a wheelchair is special treatment,” she said.
The Cost of Blending In
As a neurological condition, there are no physical traits that are common among people with ASD. Many autistic individuals also mask their behaviors, hiding aspects of themselves to avoid harm and blend in with neurotypical people, or those who do not have autism or another developmental condition.
As there is no one way to display autistic traits, masking can look different for every person with ASD. One of the more common methods of masking is to stifle stimming—repetitive behaviors such as pacing, biting fingernails or rocking back and forth. Another masking technique is hiding negative reactions to sensory inputs, such as bright lights or loud noises.
While masking may seem relatively harmless to neurotypical people, the cost can be severe. A 2021 study found that masking is mentally exhausting for people with ASD and often results in suicidal ideation. Andrews said she has experienced these negative effects firsthand.
“The world thinks that we shouldn’t need accommodations because we’re able to mask, and they don’t care if it kills us.”
It's Harder for Women
Because of the social stigma and the negative effects of masking, JAMA reported that suicide rates for autistic youth and adults are three times higher than those of neurotypical people.
In women, this rate is even higher. Studies have shown “devastating rates of suicide attempts for autistic girls and women” compared with boys and men, the study authors wrote, as well as higher rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. According to the paper, this is due to a number of factors, including that rates of masking are much higher in women, as there are often “greater expectations for social interactions and skills.”
Women and girls are also diagnosed with autism at a lower rate, the study found, as current diagnostic criteria are largely based on traits seen in young boys. As a result, females are more likely to be diagnosed later in life, which can be fatal. In a Danish study, the rate of suicide attempts among people with autism increased with the age at first diagnosis and was highest in those aged 30 to 39 years.
Andrews doesn’t need a study or statistics to understand these findings. She has five children, all diagnosed with autism. It was only after her children began to be diagnosed that she recognized the signs in herself, eventually receiving her own diagnosis in her 20s.
She said that when she talks about her experience with her female coworkers with autism, they all share the same experience. “We feel like we’re not allowed to be autistic.”
What Employers Can Do
There are ways employers can aid their autistic employees and in turn, create a more positive and productive work environment. Andrews said the first step is simple: “If someone gets the courage to come to you and tell you they need an accommodation . . . believe them.”
After that, employers can speak further with their staff about the specific accommodations they need. Andrews said there are also steps employers can take to reduce biases toward autistic employees before they are even hired.
“The interview process is not only geared towards neurotypical people but towards extroverted neurotypical people,” she said. At Johnson & Johnson, she said, her division uses a committee for hiring to decrease individual biases, either conscious or unconscious.
Additionally, she said one of the simplest ways to work with autistic candidates and employees is to be direct. Because people with ASD tend to struggle with non-verbal communication and social cues, employers can benefit from giving both positive and negative feedback in a clear, polite way.
Providing these accommodations can have positive effects not only for the employee but for the organization as a whole. Ricco said he had witnessed a “growing appreciation” in the recruitment industry of the value that autistic employees can bring to the workplace.
“By understanding the challenges and capitalizing on the benefits of employing those with ASD, companies can create inclusive and diverse workforces that foster innovation, productivity and success in the life sciences,” Ricco said.
Rosemary Scott is a content editor at BioSpace, focusing on the job market and career development for professionals in the life sciences. You can reach her at email@example.com and on LinkedIn.