How Student Strengths Can Help Close the Autism Employment Gap

Twelve years ago, Stephen Shore was visiting Urakawa, a small town in Japan, where he met the mother of a teenage boy with autism. The boy had limited verbal skills, and his mother was worried about what kind of work he might find as an adult.

Shore, an adjunct professor in NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, asked her the same question he always asks parents of children with autism: What is it your child likes to do?

The mother said her son liked to spend time in the basement sticking his finger under the faucet and spraying water at high pressure. There could be a number of sensory reasons why the boy enjoyed this, Shore said, including the feeling of pressure on his thumb, the joy of watching water arc across the room, or the sound of water splashing against the wall.

“And that is a gift because it tells us, ‘OK, now we know what he’s interested in: spraying water at high pressure,’ ” he said. “So that means considering jobs that might involve spraying water at high pressure.”

Focusing on a young person’s interests as a clue to career happiness seems like a given. When a girl shows an interest in animals, she might be encouraged to consider a future career in veterinary sciences. When a boy exhibits an interest in drawing, he may be invited to sign up for art classes. And yet, when children with autism show an interest in a subject, there can be a stigma – many times leading to their interest being labeled “restrictive” or “obsessive.”

“It’s important not to pathologize these strengths,” said Kristie Patten, an associate professor and department chair for NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy.

Moving from Pathology to Potential

As an example, Koenig said her son, who does not have autism, used to talk a lot about baseball statistics and history, “but we don’t ascribe any weakness to that. We don’t say he’s obsessed or has a ‘restricted interest.’ But for kids who are on the autism spectrum, many people view it as more of a pathology or a deficit versus seeing the potential there, because of the depth of the interest.”

She said removing the pathology from these interests not only eliminates a negative stigma but allows members of the autism community to thrive in situations that capitalize on their strengths. They can be helped mentally and socially, but also occupationally.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to “provide reasonable accommodations” for applicants and employees who disclose disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, Koenig says many employers do not know which accommodations may be most effective.

In her 2014 white paper “Autism in the Workplace: How Occupational Therapy Practitioners Can Support the Neurodiverse Workforce,” Koenig said employers can help employees on the spectrum with accommodations such as modified office lighting, quiet workspaces, and short breaks.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics has said adults on the autism spectrum are more than 300 times more likely to be unemployed than those with other developmental disabilities. Recent studies suggest a straightforward solution: focus on strengths.

“Nobody – whether they’re autistic or not – makes a career out of doing things they are bad at,” Shore said.

How to Capitalize on Interests

Moving from a deficit model to a strengths-based approach was the basis of Professor Koenig’s recent study of 80 adults who have autism. The study compared childhood passions and current interests, with 92 percent of respondents saying their interests helped them feel calmer, often referring to their interests as a “lifeline.”

Koenig wanted the study to provide a counterbalance to literature portraying the interests of people with autism in a negative light.

“That wasn’t my experience with autistic individuals that I knew and worked with,” she said. “I saw the power and the potential of their interests.”

The study highlights the difference between how those with autism and their non-autistic peers view their interests. There is an apparent gap in support systems for these students, as well as a need for more structure to bring students’ preferred interests into classrooms. Otherwise, educators, teachers, and occupational therapists focus more on remediating weaknesses, missing opportunities to capitalize on inherent strengths.

“I’ve found that most people on the spectrum who are successful all have a common thread,” Shore said. “They’ve found a way to match their special interests and wish to become a regional, national, or sometimes even international expert on a particular subject.”

One well-known example is Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist who has autism. Another is Shore, also autistic, who is a professor of special education at Adelphi University and has given workshops on autism in nearly 50 countries.

He said ascribing special interests to long-term skills and strategies is an essential way to help eliminate the employment gap in the autism community, but placing people with autism in the perfect job based on their interests is not always obvious. When people hear Shore’s story about the Japanese teen, for instance, many suggest he could have become a firefighter.

“But if he has limited communication, he may have difficulty [calling] out orders to colleagues fighting a fire, or listening to orders and [reacting] instantly,” Shore said.

Instead, the teen could use his love of high-pressure water spraying to wash buildings, sidewalks, or cars, Shore said.

Identifying Workplace Support

More companies are creating a neurodiverse workforce, hiring people with developmental disabilities, including those on the spectrum.

“The businesses of tomorrow will need to leverage the innovative thinking of a diverse workforce,” Koenig said.

The Atlantic  and Harvard Business Review have called neurodiversity a “competitive advantage” in the workplace. Specialisterne USAMicrosoft and 92Y’s Camps Tova & Bari Tov have recruiting and hiring initiatives that match those with autism and other developmental disabilities with open roles in the company. 

Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne USA, a talent and career development program for adults on the spectrum, after his son was diagnosed with autism. When others viewed his son as being “overstimulated,” Sonne noted his son’s attention to detail.

Before founding Specialisterne, Sonne worked in software testing, data, and analysis, a field requiring accuracy, memory, and attention to detail. He found it difficult to recruit and hire people with those skills, but often saw great potential in those with autism. He also saw an opportunity.

“I quit my job with the intent not to change autistic people, but the label behind it,” Sonne said.

Citation for this content: OT@NYU, the online doctorate in occupational therapy from NYU Steinhardt.