Discrimination against autism in the workforce, and am I hurting my son’s employment prospects?

autism awareness ribbon

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I have a regular commenter, who openly states that he chooses not to tell his work colleagues about his autism (Aspergers specifically), out of concern for how it might impact on their attitudes towards him and his work. Today I found this piece about someone’s similar (and very real) concerns about work colleagues’ attitudes towards their Aspergers too. It’s clear that such concerns are well-grounded; people will be tempted to think of you and the quality of your work differently, merely because you have a diagnosed condition of some description.

But it is also clear that judgment is not just for autism or Aspergers or depression; it’s to do with the person doing the judgment making decisions from a usually ignorant stand-point (they don’t know much at all about the condition, the idea of diagnosis is what puts them off), and that the person doing the judging has erroneously confused together the quality of a worker and their work, with the condition. As if the condition pre- and over-determines the outcome of the work relationship. Whilst also forgetting that many people all around them have diagnoses unannounced, or problems as yet undiagnosed.

When one hears about a diagnosis, you’d hope the reaction would be polite interest and enhanced understanding and patience. It seems that might be an unrealistic expectation, at this time. I am hopeful (ever hopeful) that as awareness of autism increases, so will understanding; that autism does not predetermine personalities, intelligence, skills or inabilities. It is a condition that brings with it certain (and at times, significant) challenges, but those challenges are not insurmountable; particularly by the time the person at issue has made it to adult-hood and to the point where they are actively seeking and applying for jobs.

I see the autistic people in the workforce now, as lighting the way for my son. They are clearing the rubbish and ignorance out of the way, with the evidence of their amazing work-place accomplishments despite (and sometimes because of) their autism. But when I read and hear and see that they are often actively keeping their diagnoses a secret, I worry that the link between autistic people and amazing work, continues to go unrecognised. However I fully understand their decision to hold back that knowledge; not just because it might hurt their earning and ability to support their families, or their career prospects. But because their diagnosis should be irrelevant. Surely all that matters is they do their job and they do it well. There should be no pressure to tell everyone that they have a diagnosis, but neither should there be any shame attached to that pronouncement.

Hiding one’s autism isn’t always an option. When it’s severe enough to be noticed very quickly, but not so severe that the person is largely unemployable, it’s all the harder to even get your foot in the door. I have been extremely pleased to see a growing number of organisations and initiatives set up to find jobs specifically for such autistic people; promoting their sometimes considerable and rather unique talents, whilst also actively supporting them through the employment process.

So where will my own son fit in to all this? At this point in time, I could foresee him sitting between these two broad groups of people. His autism might always be obvious and debilitating, or it might become significantly less so over the next decade; he has had very real progress over the past two years alone. Either way I do foresee him being employable and seeking employment.

I wonder then, whether my current actions are hurting his chances.

I am trying to raise awareness and understanding of autism, a large part of my motivation in doing so is to make his future brighter. And I’ve put him in special programs, and now in a special school, with the aim of increasing his skills and overcoming his challenges. But along the way have I – do I – over-expose his identity, in such a way as to lessen his chances of employment and inclusion as an adult?

There are a couple of places (at least) on the internet, where his name is directly linked with autism – sometimes as a simple consequence of him being my son and me fighting for  “my autistic son”. Then there is the fact of his enrolment at a special needs school; his name and educational past now eternally linked with his disability. I’ve done these things with the best of intentions, and more specifically, in his best interests. But unless future workplaces and work colleagues can be made to understand that this condition he has, and this special help he needed, do not mean that he is unemployable, then there is potential that I have hurt his future already.

What a horrible and frightening thought.

So all the more, I must fight to make people understand that autism does not mean unemployable. And I passionately ask – once the knowledge is no longer a danger to your employment, perhaps at retirement if it must be that way – that autistic people speak out proudly and loudly that they worked and their work was most excellent.

A lot can happen in the next decade, before my son reaches adulthood. I will continue to do all I can to make those happenings, positive ones. Not just for my own son, but for every autistic person who just wants the chance to live up to the very best and most they can be.

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13 Responses to Discrimination against autism in the workforce, and am I hurting my son’s employment prospects?

  1. lynnesoraya says:

    Hi, I’m the author of the article you referenced — thanks for reading and linking to my article. It’s always a great thing to feel someone has read what I have written and felt moved enough to write about it.
    I really value what you’ve written, and share your concerns. It’s a very difficult issue, which is part of the reason I write about it. As I wrote, I am not yet “out” in the workplace, but I think a great deal about it. I like very much what you wrote here:
    “When one hears about a diagnosis, you’d hope the reaction would be polite interest and enhanced understanding and patience. It seems that might be an unrealistic expectation, at this time. I am hopeful (ever hopeful) that as awareness of autism increases, so will understanding; that autism does not predetermine personalities, intelligence, skills or inabilities.”
    I wholeheartedly agree. I sincerely hope and pray that this will be the norm in the future…we need to become a society that values everyone…those on the spectrum and those that are not. I want you to know that I think about children like your son every day. One of the reasons I write is to try to contribute in some way to a future that is better for his generation that it was for mine.

    I believe that the day WILL come…I hope that doesn’t make me naive. I really hope so.

    • That was a beautiful and touching comment, thank you. And thank you too for writing such an eye-opening and important piece in the first place. (And one more thank you, for sharing my post with your Twitter followers!)

      I look forward to reading more of your views in your posts :)

  2. Elise says:

    To be honest the fear that my autism advocacy may come back to hurt the bouts is why I removed my last past name from as much of my writings that I could and now use a penname. To fight for acceptance in the name of our children is one thing. But to use them as liters-children without their permission is another. The world is not ready yet for the truth about our children. While some post-secondary education institutions are happy to help and accept our children most are not and don’t even begin to contemplate grad school. While the working world may actually be different as there are laws that can protect them even accessing those laws are difficult. For right now privacy is my watchword and slow and steady advocacy is the other. Btw there is no guarantees about privacy no matter whTvyou do. The Internet does have a way of biting everyone on the butt at some point no matter how careful you are.

    • True Elise. I think these days we’re still learning what impact it has on people’s long term futures, to have information about them openly available on the internet – discussions about our children’s conditions is just one aspect of it, though the closest to my heart. I try to protect my son’s identity as best I can; to not make it easy for people to know much about him from the internet, and what they do know to only be positive. My efforts might be futile or already too late, but I will do what I can anyway.

    • Agriculturemajor says:

      I am a graduate student with Pervasive Developmental Disorder. I am a year into my work on my Master’s degree. So it is possible for someone on the spectrum to be successful in a professional post-graduate program. No, it’s not always easy –not at all –but I have excellent faculty and an advisor who support me in reaching my goal–as well as the Services for Students with Disabilities office and their support. So I wouldn’t discount the possibility of graduate work. :)

      • Thank you very much for sharing that! And all the best with your studies too :)

      • Red says:

        You probably had supportive family and plenty of financial resources. That is not the reality for many of us. I applaud you for trying and going for what you want. Perhaps more people like can do this. I did not have those opportunities. I have a vocational degree at best. Jobs have been tricky. If you don’t have stellar social skills and know the right people, you pretty much can kiss it all goodbye. You will find this out for yourself when you have to get a job.

    • Amy says:

      I wanted to share with you all that I have Asperger’s. I was diagnosed when I was almost four years old back in the sixties when not much was known. My grandmother was considered “the first lady” in working with autistic/Asperger children. Sometimes they did not make that distinction between the two groups back then, depending upon the educated person that one was talking to and their training and background. My grandmother was also an English teacher. Her directive for me was that I keep silent about having Asperger’s. She told me by the time I was nineteen years old. I had always wondered why I had such a hard time in school. I thought differently (in pictures) and responded better to teachers that accidentally caught this fact when they watched me doodle pictures on paper that would help me to understand certain types of math. I managed to make good and mostly excellent grades though I had to put more effort into the way I “learned to study.” I was raised by grandparents. They eventually died. They were old when they got me at three months old. They never told my birth mother or anyone else in the family but my physician. He eventually died too. My life has been very hard. I wish I had listened to my grandmother though. I confided in one person about my Asperger’s because I was very proud that I managed to get my own column in a newspaper. I studied the AP style manual because they have rules of writing numbers and how to quote things, and how to quote very long quotes that have multiple paragraphs and such. Needless to say, the word must have trickled out. I wrote this column for two years! Eventually the same people who had worked with me and complimented me on the column were not returning my emails any more, nor were they returning my phone calls. I got the message–the one that my grandmother had urgently warned me about, the possibility that people would immediately shun me. Perhaps it insulted the owner of the newspaper in some way, that someone with Asperger’s could write an effective column and receive a great response from the community at large. You can see the pain behind my words. I resigned my position. Life is very complicated as I age. Jobs have been few and far between for me. I agree with keeping silent. I would also ask that those of you who have us children, they may need more help as they grow up after you are gone, and they have to be careful in whom they confide. My name is changed for my protection. Thanks.

  3. Rachel says:

    This is such a difficult question, and it seems that every autistic person has a different answer.

    During my career as a tech writer, I was undiagnosed, so it wasn’t an issue at all. Now that I am back to work (at two different jobs — one as a copy editor, and one as a personal care assistant to a disabled child), I made a decision to be open about the Asperger’s. Part of it is that I’m already “out” and write under my own name, so attempting to hide it probably wouldn’t have done much good. In fact, for the PCA job I just got, one of the people hiring me did a Google search and found my blog!

    But it was all good, as it led to a conversation about how Asperger’s manifests in me, and I was happy for them to understand how I perceive things. After all, if I’m sitting in a room and can’t make out the words that someone is saying because there is too much ambient sound, there is no way for me to fake my way through that. And, in a quiet environment, if someone tries to use nonverbals to get a point across, I won’t see it happening, so I have to ask that people be verbal and direct. It’s better that I do all this ahead of time; it helps to avoid misunderstandings.

    At 53, I don’t like hiding essential parts of myself anymore; it tends to engender both fear and shame in me. There is no reason for me to feel fearful or ashamed. When I do, it just saps my energy and power. I need to be able to be myself; it just takes too much energy for me to be otherwise.

    So I think you are doing your son a great service. I really do, and I don’t think that you should second-guess yourself about it.

    • Thank you Rachel, that warms my heart.

      “At 53, I don’t like hiding essential parts of myself anymore; it tends to engender both fear and shame in me. There is no reason for me to feel fearful or ashamed. When I do, it just saps my energy and power. I need to be able to be myself; it just takes too much energy for me to be otherwise.”

      So true, so beautifully said. You are one wise woman :)

  4. Andy Wyant says:

    I have been employed with the Brevard Achievement Center (BAC) company for a little over 3 years, at the Hurlburt Field Commissary, by Fort Walton Beach, Florida. I have a collection of symptoms that definitely plant me under the Asperger “umbrella”. Some of these symptoms are as follows: an often-annoying (to others, more than to me) tendency to talk loudly, even when I don’t mean to, I talk to myself quite frequently, I am VERY easily frustrated by even small mishaps and accidents, and I have a tendency to think that “everything goes wrong just because I’m…well, me.” I sometimes wonder if I’m cursed or something, because I seem to have about ten “bad” days for every “good” day.

    However, as is the case with many Asperger patients, I have discovered that I possess a very high IQ (one quite lengthy internet test put it at 177, and this test had a ceiling of 200, so I knew it was legit), and am semi-fluent in Spanish, with a vocabulary in that language that I peg at about 10,000 to 15,000 words. In English, my native language, I have a VERY large vocabulary of at least 100,000 words, and I know how to spell at least 250,000 words–everything from “cat” and “dog” all the way to the granddaddy of them all: “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis”. That last one is a doozy, I know, but it is simply defined as follows: “a rare, though often fatal, lung disease contracted by coal miners as a result of prolonged exposure and inhalation of ultra-fine silicate dust,” or simply, “Black Lung.”

    I learned how to read at the age of 3, and was already reading adult-level encyclopedias and dictionaries and even medical books by the time I ended my first year of school (pre-kindergarten). My kindergarten teacher told my parents she had never seen anyone able to read like I could, and she had already been teaching for about 20 or so years by that time.

    Math came just as easily as reading and spelling–I entered high-school-level math classes in 7th grade, and even then, I was earning straight A’s in most (if not all) of my assignments. There was another student from my class who joined me in these “advanced-placement” classes: Katrina “Katie” Appell. She did not have Asperger syndrome, but she WAS very intelligent. She had a then-annoying (to me) tendency to earn perfect scores on almost all of her assignments, when I would get one or two problems wrong.

    I suffered from a very large problem during my primary and secondary school years: BULLIES. LOTS of them. It appeared to me that at least half, if not three-quarters, of the entire student body at my school (which was small, but still over 200 students in just the high school building) made fun of me or, in general, attempted to make my life miserable. They would do things ranging from calling me the whole gamut of names ranging from the simple “freak” to more epithetical names dealing with my (supposed) sexual orientation (yes, they thought I was a homosexual–which I am NOT), to more sinister actions ranging from destruction of my personal belongings (tearing up often valuable Magic: The Gathering trading cards), illegally swapping padlocks in the gym locker room (so I couldn’t open my locker, much to my nearly immediate infuriation, and the other students’ schadenfreud). FYI, that last term is German for “one’s enjoyment of others’ misfortune or misery”. Other things included throwing wads of used chewing gum into my hair, which my witch of a stepmother forced me to wear rather long, so I would have to part it–she considered buzz cuts to be a “lazy cop-out”; deliberately untying my shoes, flicking my ears, and throwing spitballs at the back of my head–one such spitball was larger than a golf ball!

    What infuriated me, as well as my father, was the fact that the school faculty did nothing about the bully “issue”, other than to punish ME, and let the bullies often get off “scot-free.” You see, the faculty thought I was the problem, and NOT the bullies. Eventually, I tried to take matters into my own hands (and teeth) a couple of times–yes, I actually BIT one of the bullies who insisted on calling my hairstyle a “toupee”, (I received a detention for this–as well as a sound spanking [yes, my parents STILL spanked me at that age], but Adam Watson, the bully in question, got NOTHING, save for a bite mark on his arm). Another time, I actually stabbed another bully in the arm with a pencil–and drew blood, which in turn, drew a suspension for me, but once again, NOTHING for the bully in question, whose name was Ryan Smith.

    Of course, if I had been attending high school in this day and age, that whole bullying issue would have been “nipped in the bud” right off the bat, and not allowed to fester for nearly TWELVE years of school-time hell.

    I am now 32 years old, and I still remember those days with almost crystal clarity, even though my short-term memory is somewhat lacking (I think partially because of a concussion I suffered in 2000, as a result of falling off my bicycle while I was traveling at full speed).

    My memory sucks, yet I can recite pi to 60(!) decimal places: 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939974944.

    How’s THAT for irony?!

    • Andy Wyant says:

      Just realized I omitted 10 decimal places: in between the last 9 of the “69399” group, and before the 7 of the “74944” group, there should the following digits: 3751058209.

  5. Amy says:

    Andy, you’re far braver than I am. I am glad that people respect you. I am not a shadenfreud. :) I am talented with languages also. I am an auspie too. In the sixties I was one of ten children in a “control group.” Three of us were chosen not to take any drugs, experimental or otherwise. The others were either medicated or placeboed. I was one of “the three” not placed on drugs. Instead my grandmother worked with me doing “fun work” after school every other day in the evening, and she would work with me extensively for a few hours (with play breaks) on the weekends. I was the only girl in the control group. Because of my grandmothers work, I was never in a special education class. It is rather interesting to note that I am a geeky/writerish/creative type as an adult. The other two boys that were not medicated; one became a police officer, the other an attorney. :)

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