Narratives of Autism and Skilled Employment: Barriers, Facilitators, and Considerations in Professional Settings

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
D. Raymaker1, M. Scharer2, F. Gardiner3, S. K. Kapp4, K. McDonald2 and C. Nicolaidis1, (1)School of Social Work, Portland State University, Portland, OR, (2)Portland State University, Portland, OR, (3)Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education, Portland, OR, (4)University of Exeter, Exeter, United Kingdom
Background: A disproportionate number of autistic people are unemployed or malemployed. Most autism-related employment programs focus on entry-level work; however, many autistic people have specialized training or post-secondary degrees, making unskilled labor undesirable or inappropriate. Although better employment outcomes are a high priority in both services research and for the autistic community, little is known about what facilitates successful skilled employment–including what “success” means to employees.

Objectives: Our objective was to use a Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) approach to conduct a qualitative study of skilled autistic employees and job-seekers. First, we aimed to understand experiences of: barriers and facilitators, how autism characteristics affect work, and environmental or personal factors. Second, we aimed to identify areas of systemic leverage that could inform an effective intervention. Lastly, we aimed to understand what autistic individuals with skilled training thought “success” and “good employment outcomes” meant to them.

Methods: Our team of academics, autistic people, family members, and disability services providers used our CBPR process to create an interview guide for eliciting detailed stories about employment experiences from autistic participants. To maximize accessibility, we offered interviews over email, video conferencing, telephone, text-based internet messaging, and in-person. We recruited a national sample of adults with an ASD diagnosis who had been trained in a profession, and had successfully found, or were looking for, skilled work in the US. We used purposeful sampling to obtain variation in professions, and to balance participants who did or did not self-identify as successful. We conducted a thematic analysis using an inductive approach at a semantic level. We verified findings through multiple coders, and by member checking. We discussed results and interpretations with our CBPR team to finalize findings.

Results: We interviewed 44 autistic people with skilled training (45% female, 41% male, 14% non-binary; 70% non-Latino white). Ages ranged from 21 to 65 (mean 36, std. dev. 11.5). 33% had used alternatives to spoken communication, and 76% had used some kind of disability services. They spanned a large geographical area, and represented a wide range of professions in trades, arts, sciences, administration, and technology. Key themes included the high stakes of autism disclosure, unconventional paths to success, disconnects with service and support systems, autistic “superpowers” in the workplace, discrimination, the importance of intersectionality, and success is more than a job.

Conclusions: Employment supports and services for autistic people with professional skills may need to look different than those for entry level jobs: for example, using skills demonstrations instead of interviews, or focusing on obtaining mentors and internships. Disclosure of autism was a key force in success or failure—even for the same person in similar jobs; this suggests coaching for both employees and employers around strategic disclosure could be useful. In addressing autism-related barriers to employment, it is important to remember that autistic people experience the same range of identities and experiences as any segment of the population; therefore, supports and services should also be mindful of ways in which autistic individuals can be multiply discriminated against in professional settings.