Autism is a lifelong, genetic disorder that creates communication challenges, including social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communicative behavior deficits, and relationship struggles; restricted or repetitive behavior patterns and interests; and sensitivity to sensory inputs.¹ This disorder presents a range of conditions, known as the autism spectrum, which spans from “low-functioning” individuals, who have significant speech challenges, to “high-functioning” individuals, who can communicate but have other social and behavioral challenges; high-functioning autism has traditionally been called Asperger’s syndrome. This disorder has become more of a mainstream topic, with television shows and movies, such as The Good Doctor and Rainman, depicting characters on the spectrum and more celebrities, including Dan Ackroyd, revealing their condition. Further, in their “Data and Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder,” the Centers for Disease Control show an increase in recorded autism spectrum disorder diagnoses from 2,000 (1 in 150 children) to 2,018 (1 in 44 children). With a growing awareness of autism comes a greater need to combat hurtful stereotypes and provide support to individuals on the spectrum in society and the workforce.
According to Simon Baron-Cohen, in The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention, individuals on the autism spectrum have advantages and disadvantages in the workplace: they can find patterns easier than neurotypicals but have a harder time with empathy. This author’s thesis is that both have to be considered when incorporating individuals with autism into the workplace. Doing so may reduce the problems of high unemployment and high turnover among people with autism.² This essay covers how individuals on the autism spectrum obtain jobs, adapt to jobs, and fit in. It also addresses how companies can support those on the spectrum through reasonable accommodations, such as training them to complete required tasks and communicate with colleagues, placing them in quiet offices, and teaching staff how to support diversity, including employees on the spectrum.
The Academy of Management, a professional association for management and organization scholars, has created a new subdivision dealing with autism, and there has been substantial growth in research on this specific topic as well as general growth in research on autism in adulthood in the disciplines of psychology, business, health sciences, sociology, gender studies, and criminology. Autism has become more popular as a research subject, because it has gotten a clearer definition from the American Psychiatric Association, has appeared more in movies and television, and has received more awareness among health professionals and counselors. However, even with this growth, it is still an emergent area. Academic studies cover children and teenagers very well, but adults, especially in the workplace, have not received as much attention.
The books discussed in this essay are mostly research studies and practitioner-oriented works, with a specific focus on what to do for autistic individuals in the workplace. This topic is relevant to a variety of fields, because individuals on the autism spectrum are hired to do all sorts of work, from artistic to STEM, but the essay will particularly appeal to practitioners in psychiatry, counseling, and psychology and scholars in criminology, sociology, employment discrimination, information technology, and art. This essay is divided into five sections. The first section is geared toward those who research autism in the workplace and it comprises works by academics. Sections two through four provide practitioner-oriented guides for helping those on the spectrum. These titles also offer those on the spectrum advice on the best ways to search for careers, obtain employment, and succeed in organizations. The final section lists prominent online autism-related organizations offering job search links, organizations, counseling-related resources, and forums for individuals with autism, mental-health professionals, and researchers.
1. This description is adapted from the American Psychological Association’s definition of autism in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
2. The UK’s Office for National Statistics showed, in a 2020 report entitled “Outcomes for Disabled People in the UK,” that people with autism, as a group, had the lowest employment rate among disabled people, with only 22 percent in any type of employment.
Gundars Kaupins is professor of human resource management at Boise State University. He has a PhD in human resource management from the University of Iowa. His work includes some 400 journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, and case studies on autism in the workplace, human resource ethics, experiential training, and creativity. He has focused on person-job fit and high-functioning autism in teaching. His recent work includes “Investigating Recommended Jobs for Generation A Individuals with High-Functioning Autism to Enhance Person-Job Fit,” published in Generation A : Research on Autism in the Workplace, ed. by Cristina Giannantonio and Amy Hurley-Hanson (discussed in this essay).