Here is Marjorie’s primer on the status of employment for people with autism:

Autism is the fastest growing disability in the nation, with 1 in 88 children under 8 being diagnosed with this disability.  The year my daughter was diagnosed, 1998, the rate was 1 in 500.  Girls represent about 25% of those diagnosed with autism.

At the time when our family became involved with autism advocacy organizations in 1998, their missions had been about generating awareness of the disorder, providing information to families affected, or funding research to determine the cause(s) and identify effective treatments. 

Cute kids with no eye contact served as poster children for the disorder.  But those cute kids are now growing up and aging out of the school system. And they still have autism.  So now that there is a significant cohort entering adulthood, there is a new focus on employment for people with autism.

Historically, most people with developmental disabilities were sent to “day hab” programs after high school where they focused on development of activities of daily living and recreation. These adults were not part of the work force, even if they had a particular skill that was useful for a business.   At the same time, there are people with autism who have the intellectual ability to perform in jobs (often technical ones) but are significantly challenged by the social requirements of the workplace.

Amazingly, about 80% of adults with developmental disabilities are unemployed today.

Since the effective implementation of the educational law IDEA in the 1990s, many young adults are now leaving high school with more skills, and with more experience in being included with typical peers in at least a portion of their day.  High school special education programs now are developing transition programs to help those students be better prepared to enter the workforce or to go on to vocational programs.  Social service agencies and government agencies are also beginning to step up to this need since the population of people with autism who will be exiting high school in the next 10 years is growing rapidly.

I am a member of the Westchester County Autism Advisory Council, a committee of parents, professionals, and service agencies that advise the county Department of Community Mental Health on issues pertaining to the needs of those with autism.  This summer the council hosted a forum on employment for people on the autism spectrum.

Many young adults with autism and Asperger syndrome have the potential to work independently after some initial job coaching and social skill training,  But many others will need ongoing job coaching and supported employment opportunities to be successful.   There are few traditional employers who are willing to hire people with disabilities – especially until they can prove themselves to produce at the level of a “neuro-typical” employee.

One of the primary challenges for people with autism to function well in a job is the social demands of the work place:  interviewing for jobs, taking direction from managers, collaborating with peers, engaging in social banter with office mates, and so on.  Recently I have met several young adults who have the subject matter expertise to perform a job but told me they were not been able to maintain steady employment due to their lack of social skills.  They misunderstand or misinterpret communications and non-verbal cues from managers and co-workers that get them in trouble.

Given the lack of opportunities with established businesses, there is now a trend in parent-initiated social enterprises such as farms, software testing services, computer games development, cleaning services, laundry services and car washes.  These business models take the approach of playing to the strengths of a person with autism, for example, attention to detail, committed to rules, ability to focus, interest in repetition, ability to find patterns, loyalty.

Autism Speaks has recently held a few town hall events highlighting entrepreneurs and agencies that are addressing this need as well.

Rather than focus on the autistic worker’s challenges in the conventional work environment, a number of entrepreneurs are looking at the unique attributes of autism that can be an advantage to certain work.  One area of strength is attention to detail including the ability to focus on small differences and ability to maintain that focus in completing repetitive tasks.  A number of IT software businesses have been created to take advantage of those strengths.
The New York Times published a wonderful article called The Autism Advantage, which highlighted Specialisterne.

Here are a few entrepreneurial businesses that see autism as an advantage in IT:

This organization was founded in Denmark and has since established a base in Delaware.  This fall a branch opened in the Bronx, NY, under the volunteer leadership of Mark Grein.

Based in Chicago, was started in 2008 by parents of a young man on the autism specturm. Brenda and Moshe Weitzberg set out to start up a business to provide adults with high-functioning autism with gainful employment opportunities that are commensurate with their skills and education. ‘Aspiritech leverages their exceptional talents and align those skills to the needs of the business community. The areas of software testing and QA services have proven to be a particularly good fit’

nonPareil Institute
Dan Selec and Gary Moore, two parents of teens with autism founded Nonpareil Institute in Plano, Texas, in 2008
nonPareil Institute is dedicated to providing technical training, employment and housing to individuals who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. We hope to one day be partially self-sustaining from the products our Crew build and market.
We envision ever-expanding programs beyond our current technology focus, and expanding our campus model around the world, which will allow a lifetime of sustainability, fulfillment and purpose for adults affected with autism spectrum disorder.

Recent NBC news feature

Ultra Testing
Founded in 2012 by Rajesh Anandan and Art Shectman, based in NYC, this business model uses the micro-tasking approach, breaking up tasks into small components to complete the assignment.  For clients who require a consistently high quality software testing service, ULTRA delivers superior results on-demand, on-spec, on-time, every time. We provide a rapidly scalable on-shore workforce of testers with deep technical expertise, paired up with seasoned project managers who work seamlessly with internal development and QA teams.
Press release about Elephant Ventures

‘ auticon is the first company in Germany to exclusively recruit employees with autism as consultants in IT division.
auticon sees the large potential of people with autism: pattern recognition, precision, logical thinking and an affinity to search errors, rank among the outstanding skills of Asperger autistics. Our staff develops creative approaches to solve problems and thus efficiently complement our clients quality assurance.’
They recognize the need to provide job coaching to help their employees be successful.
job coaches

Exceptional Minds
Exceptional Minds is committed to creating a world in which individuals on the autism spectrum are recognized for their talents and abilities and can achieve their full potential. The mission is to provide young adults on the Autism Spectrum with customized instruction and hands on experience to earn a living in the fields of multi-media, computer animation and post production.
‘Exceptional Minds was started in 2011 by visionaries in the Hollywood and related industries to create a bridge between high school and the working world for young adults with autism. Since then, the vocational school has developed a full curriculum around the special needs of individuals living with autism spectrum disorders,and has gone on to become the first school of its kind to develop an industry accreditation program recognizing the technical proficiency of its students.’
More reading:

Autism Speaks town hall