The Difficulties That People With ASD Face in the Workplace

The Difficulties That People With ASD Face in the Workplace
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 23 January, 2023

It’s estimated that about two percent of adults are on the autism spectrum. The millions of people in the world with this disorder often suffer the consequences of a lack of awareness and social support. More specifically, their difficulties in managing themselves in the world of work can be outstanding and significantly affect their quality of life. For this reason, today, we want to talk about the experiences of people with ASD in the workplace.

Having paid jobs or regular activities are extremely beneficial for all of us. They make us feel useful, valuable, and self-sufficient. It’s the same for people with autism. But the difficulties they face in finding employment are completely different.

woman at work
An unstructured work environment can cause great discomfort in people with ASD.

Autism and employability

People with autism don’t necessarily lack skills. In fact, they can take on many different roles. Moreover, for certain positions, their skills are better than the rest of the population. The problem lies in the absence of support, adjustments, and understanding on the part of organizations and companies.

Difficulties begin for the individual with autism when it comes to finding a job. As a matter of fact, it’s been observed that between 76 and 90 percent of adults with ASD are unemployed. There are various causes for these alarming figures. They range from higher school dropout rates and lack of vocational guidance to active and passive discrimination. In addition, some organizations don’t even consider hiring individuals with this profile. Or, if they do, they’re unable to adjust to their needs and requests.

Therefore, people with ASD struggle in their workplaces and often end up leaving. Due to their inability to achieve sustained employment, they’re doomed to the economic and emotional instability that this entails. However, what are the specific difficulties faced by individuals with ASD in the workplace??

Difficulties faced by people with autism in the workplace

Although the autism spectrum is highly heterogeneous and the degree of functioning varies considerably from one individual to another, these are some of the main challenges that arise in work environments:

Sensory overload

The brains of people with autism are hypersensitive to external stimuli. For this reason, factors such as lighting, noise, or busy environments can trigger anxiety and discomfort in them.

Despite the fact that most people easily adapt to these elements of the environment, those who have ASD don’t achieve this sensory adaptation. Consequently, they feel increasingly overwhelmed and overloaded. This not only generates great emotional discomfort but also affects their productivity and ability to function socially.

Therefore, a work environment in which these aspects aren’t attended to can be extremely challenging for them.

Interpersonal difficulties

Social cognition is one of the main areas of difficulty in ASD. For instance, the individual may have difficulties in socializing with their bosses and colleagues (in and out of work) and in understanding company policy.

In addition, people with ASD tend to like to get to the point and don’t enjoy having to navigate through a sea of subtleties and implicit and unproductive social conventions, the kind that often occur in work environments. It can also be difficult for them to work as a team and follow the guidelines imposed by other people.

Lack of structure

The cognitive inflexibility of autism makes adapting to change a real challenge. Thus, a poorly structured environment, in which there are no fixed positions, where multiple assigned tasks coexist, and in which everything is excessively dynamic and unpredictable can cause them great discomfort.

Along the same lines, a person with ASD who’s been working perfectly in their job to date may stop doing so if there are changes in the dynamics. Indeed, circumstances that, for many, would hardly even register as an inconvenience, become a problem that’s insurmountable for them.

Masking

Another of the difficulties that people with autism face in the workplace is the exhaustion produced by masking.

Imagine having to play a role in a theater performance for eight hours straight, having to continuously pretend and force yourself to be and do what you don’t want to. For the person with ASD, this need to camouflage in order to fit in is exhausting and they may require long recovery periods afterward.

Man with job stress working
People with ASD often exhaust themselves trying to blend into work environments.

How to help people with autism in the workplace

In short, a person with ASD, on a daily basis, has to face intense stimuli that attack their senses, social interactions that are difficult to navigate, and changes that are abrupt and overwhelming in their work environment. Moreover, they’re having to play a role that doesn’t come naturally to them. So, it’s easy to understand why, for them, keeping a job is so challenging.

To prevent this from happening, at the school stage, guidance should be provided to allow people with ASD to make good career choices. Indeed, it’s crucial that they choose jobs appropriate to their needs, interests, and personal abilities.

Furthermore, organizations should be more aware and sensitive to these challenges and difficulties and facilitate certain adjustments and supports. For instance, taking care of the sensory stimulation of the environment, offering a structured teaching of tasks, communicating directly, and providing independence would be excellent contributions.

In short, if companies cared for and supported the mental health of their workers, these labor difficulties would be greatly reduced.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.