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The Dirty Truth Behind Unemployment in the Autism Community

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A startling truth has hit me this political season: America doesn’t understand that unemployment in the autism community can be largely caused by institutional discrimination.

This was a startling revelation for me, and one I would love to clear up because many people I meet on the autism spectrum (AS) would love to have meaningful employment.  People are often unaware of institutional biases and the way they can burden a particular group of applicants. I believe it is a dirty little secret in hiring, and it plays a large role in the unemployment of people with disabilities.

Human resources (HR) professionals have begun to take an interest in opening opportunities to people with disabilities. Some large companies, such as Walmart, have made this a focus. I am sure they would love to hire people with AS as employees, in theory. We tend to be conscientious, hard-working, responsible and honest people who follow rules carefully. I doubt Walmart employs many people with AS, though, for the same reason most large stores, companies and restaurant chains don’t, and my two-word reason may surprise you: personality testing. 

I believe this type of testing is the key to institutional discrimination against the autism community, and it is also an industry worth hundreds of millions, which explains my failure in taking this complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Large companies attempt to weed out dishonest, antisocial, unreliable employees without the cost of an interview with standardized testing. And though the testing may weed out the people mentioned above, I believe it will be even more successful at eliminating AS candidates. There are two reasons for that, one obvious and one more insidious: extroversion and lie scales.

Extroversion is a key measure on most tests for entry-level employees. Questions are asked to pinpoint friendliness, preference for group interaction, skill with people, a love of customer service, large amounts of happiness, etc. On the surface, this does not seem to be discrimination. It can be argued that friendliness is a necessary skill for a waitress, a cashier or a customer service representative. Where this gets devastating and discriminatory is when you realize these stores aren’t merely giving these personality tests to their wait staff. These tests are being given to everyone: bussers, stock room employees, night staff, line cooks, file clerks, etc. These are jobs where people rarely deal with the public and where, given the opportunity, people with AS might excel, but thanks to an extroversion hiring bias, we may never get the chance.

Before I went with a group of AS advocates to the EEOC, I searched autism chat boards for stories about employment discrimination and personality testing, and I remember one story that broke my heart. This young man was not socially skilled with people but had a deep love of animals and skill at caring for them. He was excited when his local pet store posted a job for a night employee to work at the store and care for the animals during the evening hours. Few customers would come during this shift, and he was excited to care for the lizards, small mammals and tropical fish at the store. He knew he was qualified for the job until the smiling manager presented him with the Personality Test taken by all employees. Needless to say, this young man was still unemployed.

But people with AS often have high intelligence, you might argue. They tend to be honest people, but they could be trained to take personality tests and pretend to be extroverted for the noble cause of employment!

I was taught to fake extroversion on personality tests, but I am here to tell you I still faced two years of entry-level unemployment for a more insidious reason — a staple of all personality testing: lie scales. Lie scales are a clever invention of standardized testing companies inserted into tests to detect deception and dishonesty in a potential employee. Innocuous questions are inserted into the tests and often repeated, and there is a certain way that honest, neurotypical adults respond to these questions when they are not being deceitful. People who fail to respond to these specific questions the way a “normal, honest person” would are eliminated as deceitful.

Here’s the obvious problem: by definition, a person on the autism spectrum has a brain wired differently than an average brain. So when I answer questions, no matter how honest I am, I do not answer them the same way a neurotypical person does. Even when I try to be dishonest and mimic an honest, “typical” person, I don’t do it correctly. It literally hurts my brain to lie, and yet I am constantly eliminated as “deceptive” from candidate pools due to personality testing. The irony is that employers concerned with employee honesty and conscientiousness could ask for no more than an employee on the autism spectrum, yet their systems eliminate us without a second glance.

This is a reason why employees with the intelligence, skill and independence to work can’t find entry-level employment or gain work experience; not low self-esteem. Can this problem be solved? I suggested the EEOC require a hidden autism scale in the standardized testing. This scale would be designed not to expose applicants on the spectrum but rather to automatically pass these candidates on to the interview process, so they could be interviewed and judged on their merits, without testing bias. Please excuse my passionate efforts at lobbying, but if you care about an unemployed person on the autism spectrum, please share this piece. Please help me end at least some of the employment discrimination in the AS community.

Two women, one behind a table working and the other looking at the table

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Originally published: January 28, 2016
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