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Why My Autistic Son Makes a Great Employee

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Studies estimate 50-75% of autistic adults are unemployed and approximately 85% of autistic college grads are unemployed compared to the national unemployment rate of 4.5%. Those numbers are staggering. As I watch my son set his alarm, get up on time, fix his breakfast, brush his teeth, comb his hair and be ready to work every day he is scheduled without a single complaint, I not only find those numbers staggering, I find them heartbreaking.

Every one of us, autistic or neurotypical, wants to have a purpose, to be useful and to feel fulfilled. What’s ironic is that many autistic individuals who want to work become very valued employees when someone gives them a chance. You aren’t going to find them standing around the water cooler chit-chatting, most rarely take off work, and once the job is understood and rules explained, very few will veer from their duties. And for many, their work ethic will demonstrate the gratitude they feel to be employed.

Yes, every individual with autism is unique, which is precisely why finding them a job that matches their strengths and provides accommodations for their struggles is imperative. Many, however, can’t make it past the first interview. Whether it’s the struggle to communicate effectively, anxiety about the social constructs of a formal interview or the uncomfortableness with eye contact, getting a foot in the door is difficult when employers don’t understand how to even open the door for a potential autistic employee.

As I drove my son to his first job interview, I asked if he planned to share his autism diagnosis with the HR representative. “Yeah, I probably will in case I need any kind of accommodation to do my job right.” After I applauded him, we role-played what questions he might be asked. When I asked what his strengths were, he took my words literally and thought I meant how much weight in groceries he could carry. After I explained, he understood. And he got the job.

While driving him home from work yesterday, my son very excitedly told me he stopped counting after he filled 15 shopping orders. “Must be all the 4th of July parties people plan to have.” (My goodness how I love him). I asked if during the audit process (when their shopping is checked by a supervisor to make sure it’s correct) if he has had any errors. He sat for a moment in silence. I wondered if he had in fact made an error and like many of us, was reluctant to share his mistake. “Sorry, just give me a minute, I’m trying to find the word.” (Side note: I told him he never needs to apologize and to take his time, but it is easy to understand why he’s reluctant to communicate with those who may not be as patient and understanding as Mom). “Packaging! That’s the word. I packaged my box wrong twice. There are a lot of rules on how to package items, but now that I know them all, I don’t make mistakes.” And I have no doubt he doesn’t.

When my son knows his schedule, he shows up on time, every time. When my son knows the rules, he follows the rules, every time. When my son is given a chance to correct a mistake, he will fix the mistake (and chances are, not make it again), every time.

When an employer understands how to open the door for my son, not only will my son get his foot in the door, he will walk through that door and show the employer that behind every door that opens differently, there is an employee who wants the same as all the other employees who walked through a more standard door: a chance to be productive, purposeful, appreciated and respected.

Let’s do our part to learn how to open different doors. We will all be better for it.

Originally published: July 11, 2021
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