Career development professionals (CDPs) are privileged with the responsibility of advising, coaching, and supporting people who are seeking direction to manage their career and employment goals. This is an awesome responsibility and when it is compounded by the challenges of heavy workloads, insufficient time with clients/students and inadequate financial resources (2019 CERIC Survey of Career Service Professionals), it is easy to understand why many CDPs feel overwhelmed. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of understanding the autism population as an important career skill.
The Center for Disease Control (2016) reports that one child in 68 has autism, which makes ASD the number one neurological disorder diagnosed in North America today. That is a higher frequency than Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy and diabetes combined. This statistic does not account for the thousands of people being diagnosed as adults. Consequently, if you have supported more than 68 clients in their career journey, you have likely served a client who lives on the autism spectrum. CPDs working in post-secondary environments all over North America have seen:
- An increasingly greater percentage of the campus population diagnosed with ASD
- Greater challenges with career planning and school-to-work transition for students diagnosed with ASD
- Difficulty coping with post-secondary environments (e.g. drifting from one field of study to another) leading to frustration, anxiety, depression, and dropping out (Dipeolu, Storlie, & Johnson, 2015)
- Worse outcomes for students who live on the spectrum than other disability groups.
“It would be a mistake to overlook the importance of understanding the autism population as an important career skill.”
Developing the competencies necessary to serve this gifted but highly barriered population is a critical skill for employment professionals. Below is a summary of three major mistakes made by career development professionals when they support individuals who live on the spectrum.
1. Thinking that supporting a person with autism is no different than supporting anybody else
Despite the fact that autism prevalence has increased by 119.4% since the year 2000 (CDC,2014), a whopping 85% of people living on the Autism Spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. It is no secret that people who are differently abled have lower employment rates than their typically enabled counterparts, but autism has the lowest employment rate among disability groups even when controlling for impairment severity, household income and social demographics.
* 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability
It is clear that in order to effectively serve autism strengths and deficits, CDPs must develop the skills to modify the traditional coaching model to meet the needs of individuals on the autism spectrum.
2. Thinking the client has an attitude or behaviour problem
The challenges common in people on the Autism Spectrum are usually related to communication and neurological differences rather than to attitude.
Social communication problems can often be confused with attitude problems. For example, a person who doesn’t understand gestures, sarcasm or contextual cues may seem ‘standoffish’ because they never laugh at the jokes shared at the lunch table.
Or that person may seem perpetually angry or arrogant since they don’t take the time to participate in small talk before meetings. A CDP’s ability to understand the impact of challenges related to interpersonal skills, executive function, restricted/repetitive interests and sensory processing/integration can be the most important part of shifting an employee from struggling with job expectations into the best position for success.
Further, the comorbidity between autism and anxiety is very high This commonly amplifies problematic behaviours including resistance to change and trying new things. Many clients may even appear to be uninterested in work or give up easily due to fear of failure and concerns regarding social interactions. Understanding their own anxiety allows individuals on the spectrum to feel prepared and empowered to develop strategies for navigating difficult situations in and outside of the workplace.
3. Thinking full disclosure is the only answer
Due to a fear of being stigmatized, unfairly treated and systematically bullied, many individuals living on the spectrum delay or avoid sharing that they live on the Autism Spectrum to their employers, friends and sometimes even to the support personnel who are trying to help them.
However, the very nature of the disability makes it a challenge for many individuals with autism to ‘pass’ as neurotypical. Challenges with social insight and communication, perspective taking and understanding sarcasm will likely alert interviewers, employers, managers and HR professionals to the fact that something appears different about the ASD employee. Unfortunately, they may also feel as though their hands are tied until there has been a disclosure of an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The truth is, many of the techniques that make a CPD effective at supporting an individual living on the spectrum would benefit a wide variety of clients. Full disclosure at a job interview may not serve an individual, even at the most progressive of companies. There are a variety of other options ranging from self-advocacy to learning strategies for managing anxiety and stress.
People living on the Autism Spectrum desire to work and find their purpose as much as anyone else. Many of these individuals have a particularly strong work ethic, diverse skills sets and add tremendous value to businesses. Understanding how to help your clients identify stressors, work through barriers and build their independence will not only increase your expertise as a CDP, but also help employers become more inclusive by understanding the benefits of neurodiverse hiring practices.