Neurodiversity is a distinct concept that represents a diverse category of neurodevelopmental conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD represents an array of developmental disabilities that share similar characteristics. The term “autism spectrum disorder” is used as the characteristics can occur in variable combinations and severities. However, the disaggregation of developmental disabilities involves a wide range of descriptors.
For the purposes of this paper, the term ASD will be used to represent persons who self-report as being on the autism spectrum without an intellectual disability. Studies report few individuals with ASD live independently, have social relationships, or have secured employment, experiencing poor mental health and overall quality of life (Howlin et al., 2013; Kirby et al., 2016; Magiati et al., 2014). However, some adults with ASD successfully gain post-secondary qualifications, participate in long-term employment, live independently and engage in social and romantic relationships (Eaves and Ho, 2008; Farley et al., 2009).
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It is likely that this variability in outcomes is partly attributable to the heterogeneity of ASD and symptomatic variability, including: intelligence quotient, interpersonal communication and social interaction difficulties, comorbid conditions, restricted or repetitive behaviours (Henninger and Taylor, 2013; Kirby et al., 2016; Magiati et al., 2014), environmental factors including family support, access to interventions and support services availability (Holwerda et al., 2012; Levy and Perry, 2011). The prevalence of ASD has seen significant increases over the last decade. This increase has led to an unprecedented number of young persons with ASD transitioning into adulthood and seeking paid employment (Gerhardt and Lainer, 2011). However, employment outcomes and career success for individuals with ASD are poor with limited understanding on how best to support these individuals and ensure equal access to opportunities for success (Dreaver et al., 2019).
In the UK, individuals with ASD had the lowest employment rates of 16%, compared to 53% of all individuals with a disability and 82% of individuals without disabilities (Powell, 2019). This under-engagement in the labour market invites attention to critically review why the increasing disability gap is so vast, and how this disadvantaged group of persons have been given limited, not equal, access to career success.
Defining Career Success
Career success can be defined as real or perceived achievements individuals have accumulated as a result of their work experiences (Judge, Cable, Boudreau, & Bretz, 1995). In this paper and consistent with previous research career success shall be defined; objectively, measuring employment outcomes, retention, pay and ascendancy and subjectively, measuring mental health, quality of life and job and life satisfaction.
Individuals with ASD face personal barriers which can cause them to be unsuccessful, including lack of self-awareness regarding their perceived strengths and weakness, and how each will help or hinder their success (O’Connor, 2007). However, the strengths and abilities these individuals often possess can be harnessed in work environments.
Individuals with ASD often perform beyond the norm in jobs requiring systematic information processing and a high degree of accuracy, repetition and precision (Baldwin et al., 2014: de Schipper et al., 2016: Walsh et al., 2014). Employers repeatedly fail to capitalize on these strengths, failing to focus on the ‘person-job-environment’ fit (Lorenz and Heinitz, 2014) which supports successful outcomes for people with ASD in a variety of employment contexts (Hendricks, 2010).
Despite the increasing recognition of the potential contribution neurodiverse individuals with ASD can make in the workplace, they continue to experience challenges securing and maintaining employment compared to neurotypical persons (Hendricks, 2010: Hurlbutt and Chalmers, 2004: Howlin and Moss, 2012). A prominent personal challenge faced by individuals with ASD regarding access to career success is self-advocacy skills (Pierson, Carter, Lane & Glaeser, 2008). Shattuck et al. (2012) and colleagues found that having a strong sense of self is related to positive employment outcomes including satisfaction, retention and quality of life (Shattuck et al., 2012).
The career decision-making process of individuals with ASD can adversely affect overall career success. A core characteristic of ASD is a deficit in communication skills (APA, 2014). This internal barrier often leads to the inability for individuals with ASD to communicate their needs and interests (Mynatt, Gibbons, & Hughes, 2014). Other internal barriers can include, lack of perceived job openings and the belief that the job market is poor. Further, internal barriers such as anxiety and depression could adversely affect the career decision-making process (Pinder-Amaker, 2014). The process of career decision-making is complex (Amir & Gati, 2006).
For individuals with disabilities this process is even more complex as their disabilities bring unique variables into the equation, such as choosing a career based on their skills and abilities. Amir and Gati (2006) found that when career decision-making difficulties are not properly addressed, it results in a career path that is less than ideal. Furthermore, lack of proper career planning can result in underemployment or unemployment of college students with ASD (Cummings, Maddux & Casey, 2000).
According to Strauser & Lustig (2003), individuals with ASD who have limited employment experiences generally have less knowledge about the world of work which can have an adverse effect on their career decision-making. Research shows that conscientiousness and openness to new experiences play critical roles when it comes to career planning (Rogers, Creed, & Praskova, 2018). However, individuals with ASD are likely to have difficulties with being open to new experiences as they are struggle with changing routines (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).
Lastly, dysfunctional cognitions could also be considered a personal challenge, frequently encountered by college students with ASD. Dipelou et al. (2015) indicates that dysfunctional cognitions contribute to individuals with disabilities not being about to make significant decisions pertaining to life goals. Models of services including support roles and job coaches are often unequipped to address this concerning individuals with ASD, due to little regard for the strengths of people with ASD, misguided focus on remediating impairments and lack of understanding and knowledge about neurodiverse conditions (Holwerda et al., 2012; Lorenz and Heinitz, 2014).
This perpetuates low expectations and ultimately poor employment outcomes, a clear barrier to equal access for career success. For those individuals who find employment, many work in positions below their education level, working reduced hours and receiving lower rates of pay than their co-workers in comparative positions (Roux et al., 2015; Shatuck et al., 2012; Howlin et al., 2004). At the individual level, poor employment outcomes among adults with ASD negatively impact socioeconomic status, quality of life and mental health (Gerhardt and Lainer, 2011; Wanberg, 2012) which further negatively affects chances of career success.
External supports are consistently identified as significantly influencing employment outcomes and career success for employees with ASD (Dreaver et al., 2019). These supports such as employment services assist ASD individuals with recruitment, interview processes, job placement, workplace accommodations and ongoing support.
As mentioned above, while employment services aim to maximise employment outcomes for disadvantaged groups such as ASD individuals, they remain less than optimal failing to provide sufficient and appropriate supports (Alverson and Yamamoto, 2016; Anderson et al., 2017). Many employment service providers are not trained to comprehensively meet the unique and varying needs of ASD, nor do they have the understanding of the strengths of this population to assist with providing individualised ASD-specific support for employment success (Chen et al., 2015).
This barrier is not an identified limitation for neurotypical individuals where support services are often fully equipped to address the personal challenges of the neurotypical individual, enhancing their opportunity for career success. Employers and employment support organisations need to be equipped to support employees with ASD to work at their full capacity (Jacob et al., 2015). Without this adequate support and information provision, employers and co-workers increase the risk of allowing stigma and attitudes to guide negative judgements and negatively influence career success opportunities for individuals with ASD.
Specifically, there is a need for services that are individualized and include training in ASD for service providers to remove these limitations (Anderson, Lupfer, & Shattuck, 2018). Furthermore, support services often fuel the traditional view that employment success for individuals with ASD is dependent on the individual. However, there is increasing recognition of the need to consider employment using a bio-psycho-social approach which accounts for the environment, activities and participation (Scott et al., 2018) that may also influence employment outcomes and hence equal access for career success.
Individuals with ASD have markedly different vocational needs than individuals with other developmental disabilities [5, 56] (Muller et al., 2004). Each individual demonstrates a variety of characteristics across the diagnostic criteria; this spectrum of need and ability makes the provision of work environments and successful employment challenging (Nord et al., 2016). In employment and the work environment, the hallmark ASD impairments manifest themselves in the job application and interviewing process, communicating and interacting with colleagues, remembering and following instructions and integrating into workplace culture (Baldwin et al., 2014; Gotham et al., 2013).
These barriers do not necessarily exist for job candidates and employees without a disability. Thus, before the hiring process begins individuals with ASD are immediately at a disadvantage concerning fair consideration in the application process, and henceforth are not given equal access to possible career success. Furthermore, other environmental barriers faced by individuals with ASD include the fear of disclosing their disability as well as being accustomed to having others advocate for them.
This fear of discriminatory behaviour reflects experiences of employers’ attitudes and concerns over real and perceived barriers and fear of being stigmatised, which both hinder ASD individuals job searching activity (Farrow, 2016). This includes additional supervisory needs, sick leave, workforce heterogeneity and concern surrounding employee productivity (Jiang et al., 2013).
Common employment practices such as traditional approaches to job advertising and interviewing (Scott et al., 2015) and job descriptions requiring generic skills such as teamwork and communication skills which are not always essential to the advertised role, are also likely barriers to securing employment for this group and hindering equal access (Richards, 2012).
This paper provides a critical review including evidence-based research on limitations individuals with ASD experience whilst pursuing career success. There are various reasons to examine disadvantaged groups and the many factors which can inhibit their employment outcomes. Most significantly, meaningful integrated employment should be an available option to all individuals with ASD who wish to work.
Individuals with all levels of ASD, and all levels of cognitive, social, and behavioural functioning, have the ability and desire to work. However, a contextualized understanding of the workplace limitations employees with ASD experience has been lacking thus far.
Such practical insights into workplace issues are important for the community of working adults with ASDs, their advocates, and providers of vocational rehabilitation services. Research overwhelmingly demonstrates disappointing employment outcomes for this group. For the majority who aren’t unemployed, they are most frequently underemployed.
This paper highlights the major limitations ASD individuals can face and the need to facilitate holistic models of service to counteract these, rather than using approaches that don’t consider contextual factors. This includes considering the external supports, personal and environmental barriers which would help support successful employment and equal access to career success for individuals, specifically individuals with ASD.
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