Why job hunting is a struggle for adults with autism

Employers can be closed-minded — but they’re missing out on a vast pool of untapped talent
By Meredith MacLeod - Published on November 13, 2017
two people at a job fair
Thomas Plouffe presents some of his creations at the 2017 Autism Job Club Conference. (Courtesy of the Autism Jobs Club)

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​Parker Grezoux was thrilled when he landed his first full-time job, at a large warehouse in Milton, Ont. But his elation didn’t last long.

At 22, he had minimal job experience: his autism makes it difficult for him to throw himself into finding work. His parents were afraid that if nothing came through, he would withdraw further and spend all his time playing video games in their Halton Hills, Ont., basement.

Parker, who wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger syndrome until he was 17, has difficulties learning through observation and struggles with focus, social interaction, and nonverbal communication.

“He’s personable, bright and articulate,” says his mother, Emily, “but he doesn’t like to admit if he doesn’t understand something. If you give him 10 things to do, he’s lost after two, but he doesn’t want to admit it.”

Parker lasted just three weeks at the warehouse job before a supervisor told him he wasn’t a good fit and let him go. It was a devastating blow. His parents wanted to know what had happened so that he could learn from the experience. In the course of getting those answers, they disclosed Parker’s autism to the company, a large multinational.

A human resources representative from the company told the family that his dismissal had been a mistake — he should have been given more direction as he learned his tasks. He was immediately called back and retrained for another job, one that involved less multitasking and allowed him to be more stationary. In the quieter environment, he finds it easier focus and cut down on errors.

He is grateful for the second chance. “I want to be able to support myself, as anybody should be able to,” says Parker.

Parker hadn’t initially wanted to reveal his autism to his employer. “I didn’t think to do it, I guess, because of judgment,” he says. “I wanted to find a job that wouldn’t judge my disability.” But he and his parents say they’ve learned that disclosing Parker’s disability to employers is a good idea.

Not all employers, though, are as accommodating. Maralyn Ellis, a Burlington-based career counsellor who works on employment transitioning with young adults with autism, says that many adults with autism find that if they reveal it on an application, interview offers disappear.

Yet research has found that those with autism are more productive and have much lower rates of absenteeism and turnover than neurotypical workers. They may have difficulties developing soft skills, such as communication, but often have no trouble with technical skills.

People with autism spectrum disorder, though, have the highest unemployment rate among those with disabilities. According to a 2013 Ontario study, just 14 per cent of adults on the autism spectrum work full time. Another 6 per cent work part time.

That leaves a vast and growing pool of untapped labour talent. One in 68 children is diagnosed with ASD, and its prevalence has increased more than 100 per cent in the last 10 years, according to Autism Speaks Canada.

The term autism covers a complex spectrum of neurological disorders, and the public perception, says Elizabeth Plouffe, whose son Thomas, 19, has autism, is that it means either intellectual disability or extraordinary intelligence. Thomas is right in the middle.

“I’m afraid that by that dichotomy, Thomas won’t be given a chance on his own terms. My biggest fear as a parent is that no one will give him a chance and see beyond his diagnosis.”

Although Thomas estimates he’s sent out about 60 job applications, he has yet to receive an offer. He’s frustrated, because he wants to start saving for school: he’ll be studying art fundamentals at Sheridan College next semester. He dreams of working in movies or forensic anthropology. He eagerly shows me some of his creations — pencil sketches, detailed figurines made out of clay, modelled sculptures of faces.  

His marks were good in high school, but his longest job, at a party supply store, lasted two months. A pizzeria job lasted just a day, and one at a grocery store lasted three.

“There wasn’t proper training. I felt set up to fail,” says Thomas, who never discloses his autism to employers.

“I used to be embarrassed about autism. I just wanted to be like everyone else. I thought I was the only kid with it. I’m not embarrassed by it anymore,” he says. But he knows he sometimes needs redirection and a chance to refocus.

“I need someone to talk to me when I’m doing something wrong.”

Elizabeth says that two doctors refused to sign letters for an application for disability benefits: they indicated that Thomas’s autism should not prevent him from getting a job. But that has not been her experience.

And job hunters like Thomas have few specialized resources to draw upon. School or government supports for autism end when people turn 18, leaving only a patchwork of employment agencies in the community, few of which focus on autism. Ellis says employment during high school is the biggest predictor of employment in adulthood for those with autism — it’s difficult for high-school graduates to find work if they don’t have any prior job experience.

“Parents tell me that when their kids finish high school, if there is no college or university, it’s like they fall off a cliff,” says Ellis.

Recognizing the need was there, Ellis launched the Autism Job Club in 2015. Based on a similar group in California, it brings together 30 to 40 people with autism and their families and offers supports, resources, learning, and mentorship related to finding and keeping employment. The group meets twice a month at a Burlington high school.

Ellis believes it’s the only group of its kind in Canada, but she doesn’t want it to stay that way. “I won’t be happy until AJC is everywhere.” She’s also received a government grant to do research into bridging the gap from school to employment for those with autism. Right now, there are few, if any, bridges at all, she says.

After Thomas graduated in June 2016, Elizabeth stumbled upon the Autism Job Club while researching job resources at the library. She had never heard of it, even though it was meeting right in Thomas’s school. The discovery was a fortunate one: at AJC, she says, Thomas has found both mentors and confidence.

But employers need to start backing up buzzwords with action, she says. Talk of inclusivity can’t be just for show.

“We are just asking for a little patience. If he’s honestly not doing a good job, then fire him. But just give him a little more time to get there.”

Ellis says a big step in the right direction would be getting rid of traditional job interviews, which she calls “antiquated.”  Many with autism struggle with those kinds of one-on-one conversations and the spontaneity interviews require — but if such requirements won’t be part of the job, they shouldn’t determine who gets it, she says.

“An interviewer may overlook someone on the spectrum in favour of someone more at ease and chatty who isn’t as qualified to do the actual job.”

Perhaps just as important, Ellis says, is the push within the autism community to encourage children with autism to dream about what they want to be when they grow up.

“Children with autism have a right to become contributing members of society. It’s important to assume their employability, because they have so much to offer.”

Meredith MacLeod is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail and the Hamilton Spectator.


Related video — Employable Me, episode one: Becca and Riley

Employable Me is a six-part documentary series that features job-seekers determined to show that having a physical disability or neurological condition shouldn't make them unemployable.

 

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