Adults with autism bring special talents to the workplace -- employers would be lucky to have them

April is Autism Awareness Month, and while it’s a good idea to remind people about awareness for autism, few need reminding. With nearly 1 in 68 people being diagnosed, it’s getting harder to find people who aren’t directly impacted or know of a friend or family member who is “on the spectrum.” Current diagnoses rates are up nearly 300 percent and expected to increase to 1,292 percent by 2020. ASD is 4.5 times more common in boys – 1 in 42 – than it is in girls – 1-189 – according to the CDC.

Given the massive number of individuals that are impacted by ASD, one would think we’d do a much better job at helping autistic individuals gain employment. But the sad truth is, we don’t. Nine in every 10 people with ASD are either unemployed or underemployed. In California, where I live, just 6 percent of young adults with ASD have any form of competitive employment.

What is so shameful about these numbers is that many young people with ASD possess the skills and talents that could help so many businesses.  These individuals oftentimes remain highly focused on tasks and can be a real asset to a business. But businesses need to know how to work with individuals on the spectrum. Although every experience of autism is unique, there are some trends employers should know about:

We must change public perception about individuals on the spectrum.

Individuals on the spectrum see things differently and can bring new perspectives to ways of working and thinking. They often have novel approaches to problem solving and working because of their unique thought processes.  With encouragement to be different, employees on the spectrum can bring a whole new level of innovation to an organization.

Individuals on the spectrum can struggle with social awareness, but they will tell you what everyone else is thinking but doesn’t want to say.  These individuals are very honest and usually have a high level of integrity.  In addition, employees on the spectrum are often more accepting of others and differences and can be very positive role models for their colleagues.

Individuals on the spectrum often like routine and predictability, they are able to stick to tasks that others often get bored with.  This can include having in-depth knowledge of a particular subject that they have studied, and because of their high levels of concentration, they are less likely to be distracted during tasks.

We must change public perception about individuals on the spectrum. Part of my work with Meristem, a school in Fair Oaks, California, is to help highly functioning autistic students develop skills to be able to live independently and contribute to their communities. This can be done, but we must evolve our thinking in the value that these individuals can bring.

For far too long an ASD diagnosis has crippled families and individuals with the belief that there is no future for someone with ASD. But with the supportive work of federal and state governments and individual employers, businesses can harness the good that comes from these individuals and continue to thrive in business. 

Elisabeth Johnson is director of strategic initiatives at Meristem, a program for high functioning students with ASD.