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What '60 Minutes' Got Wrong About Autism and Employment

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Anderson Cooper’s recent short piece on “60 Minutes” had been recommended to me by family and friends as an example of positive progress for employing autistic adults. Anderson himself cast the segment as evidence of hope for parents of autistic children approaching the “cliff” of adulthood and falling into a society unprepared and resistant to accepting autistics into the workforce.

As I watched with my 15-year-old autistic daughter, I could feel her body twisting in discomfort with every progression of the discussion. Her strongest reaction coming as a result of how autism was being depicted as a male-dominated “spectrum” of severity and fixed unique interests. By highlighting skills such as blockchain development, reading fine print for errors, or developing software used by NASA astrophysicists, the segment fell in line with everything our family had been told about what autism looks like since she missed her first few developmental milestones as an infant. Rain Man could count cards, but is that idea of autism truly representative of an entire community?

Actor Darryl Hannah and author/poet Morgan Harper Nichols plainly don’t fit that mold. The first openly autistic woman to become an attorney, Haley Moss, didn’t choose computational sciences as a career. If autism and its many neurotypes cut across race, socioeconomics, and gender, why do we accept the notion that there is only a small range of jobs and opportunities for which they are capable?

The revelation that corporations are trying to develop competitive advantages by using autistic employees shouldn’t be surprising and it is reminiscent of the profit-driven motivations of the NCAA and professional sports as they mine socioeconomically depressed classes for their “natural athletic talents.” But to truly allow autistic people their own agency would be to foster an educational and employment workspace that not only recognizes an individual’s independent capabilities but also embraces their ability to act on their own will.

The often-confabulated notion that the spectrum of neurodiversity among the autistic community is a comparative “severity” scale frames people like my daughter as belonging to a certain stratum of humanity. Anderson’s, and some of his interviewees’, language may not have been intended to be harmful, but the implicit biases we project when talking about a community to which we do not belong need to be checked. Changing how we view employing autistic people requires asking a broad spectrum of actually autistic people what meaningful workplace access and acceptance looks like to them, not their parents. Where on the spectrum one’s neurodivergence lies should not be tied to a specific need or what career best suits them. There is a large cohort of nonspeaking autistic adults with high support needs who contribute greatly to our society; it simply goes unrecognized.

A frequently carted-out trope frames the disability community as a group of people who need saving, or that they have some certain expertise or characteristic that makes them valuable to the “rest of” society. Their worth is constantly scrutinized under the light of utility to the 75% of the population who is not disabled. Those individuals with the most support needs or certain marketable characteristics are frequently highlighted in the media when abled people in positions of power or with large platforms want to highlight “overcoming” the challenges of being disabled. Ironically, their actions and framing only continue to perpetuate a culture that endorses stereotypes and avoids real structural changes.

The path to employment for an autistic adult begins with the same stepping stones as it does for anyone, including access to education. And access means so much more than to any one particular curriculum. Any community denied educational access will face an uphill battle to find employment.

Anderson cites a Drexel study to illustrate how grim employment statistics are for autistics; the study reporting that 42% of autistic adults will never work. While that data point is unnerving, it is important to know where the source material comes from: the public special education system.

The national high school graduation rate for all children is approximately 86%, yet less than three out of every four autistic children will earn a high school diploma. The referral system for special education is far from being free of bias. Far fewer girls are referred to, and enrolled in, special education, perpetuating the pseudoscience idea that girls are much less likely to be autistic. So if our classrooms are not accessible and inclusive, how can we expect our workplaces to be?

If non-autistic people never have the chance to be educated alongside appropriately supported and identified autistic children, how as adults can they be expected to see the value in hiring autistic people, see them as peers, or even be employed by an autistic boss?

One’s worth should not be tied to corporate marketability. Understanding this “60 Minutes” segment in the context of the American educational and employment system’s well-known history of exploring differences in white males, and punishing the same issue as a negative behavior in people of color and women, is to continue to promote the idea that charity is needed to uplift a lower caste of disabled people. And when we do, we embrace the false notion that autistics are less than human and they can only be fulfilled if filling a role we find or create for them.

Whether congenital or acquired, we are all dealt a hand of interests and possibilities, and we should not restrict someone’s potential by defining it for them. My daughter will ultimately become what she sees herself capable of becoming, but if what we show her, and if what those who might employ her only see, is that her bandwidth is narrow, her interests are fixed, and she is only capable of managing smaller niche aspects of what the average American is capable, she will never be happily employed.

Getty image by Abscent84.

Originally published: August 17, 2021
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