April 2, 2016 was designated World Autism Awareness Day. Many world monuments were lit up in blue lights to show support for the cause. Colorful ribbons and pins were worn and emotional sentiments were plastered all over social media. While the gestures themselves were moving, the concept of autism “awareness” is simply not enough. Without autism “acceptance and inclusion”, none of this actually makes a difference.
As the father of a wonderful 11-year-old boy with autism, every day is Autism Awareness Day for us. Much of my time spent worrying about what career opportunities will be available to him once he reaches adulthood. Will he be able to transition his special abilities into meaningful employment, or will he face a constant struggle for acceptance?
All of us possess special talents. However, while many have proclaimed the benefits of diversity, society has created stereotypes and cultural obstacles that make it difficult for “neurodiverse” individuals – those with different thinking styles – to lend their voice to the global chorus. One of the areas where change is desperately needed is in breaking down the barriers to employment for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
ASD and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and possible repetitive behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the current incidence of autism is 1 in 68 children.
While much attention is paid to rising autism rates in children, the number of adults on the autism spectrum is increasing rapidly and the nation is not prepared to provide appropriate support and opportunities for these individuals. The cost of autism to the U.S. is approximately $250 billion per year, with that number expected to rise significantly over the next decade.
More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. And these individuals are in desperate need of employment. About 50% of people with autism do not have a cognitive impairment and still 85% of people of working age with autism are unemployed.
Many individuals with autism have the skills frequently desired by employers, including visual learning skills and the ability to recognize patterns, strong attention to detail, concentration and perseverance over long periods of time, high diligence and low tolerance for mistakes. Their job attrition rate is far lower than typical employees. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor is requiring federal contractors to ensure that 7% of their workforce will be individuals with disabilities. If all this is true, then why is it so difficult for these individuals to find jobs?
One significant challenge is that many employers don’t see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or have poor communication skills. New approaches are needed that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. New technologies and innovative employment programs that focus on individuals with special needs can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees. It sounds good in theory, but how do we get there? And what role can technology play in this much needed cultural change?
To read the rest of this article, published in Forbes, please click here.