Study Shows Only 33% of Autistic Adults are Employed in Canada
Since getting through my most recent autistic burnout I wanted to address the challenges I face in the workforce.
There’s a semi-popular Tiktok floating around where the poster is asking the autistic community - that is actually employed - how they’re managing it.
Most answers are similar to mine: We work until we burnout and either end up taking time off or job hop. On a daily basis it looks like coming home or logging off and not wanting to or being able to do anything else that evening.
This is why I wanted to do a deep dive into the actual employment rates of autistic individuals and what businesses and employers are already and can start doing about this problem.
What is Autism and Neurodiversity
Let’s begin by defining both autism and neurodiversity so we’re on the same page.
According to the National Autistic Society, Autism is characterized by several criteria and traits including:
Social communication and interaction challenges
Repetitive and restrictive behaviours
Over or under sensitivity to sensory stimuli
Highly focused interests or hobbies
Anxiety and other mental health issues
Meltdowns and shutdowns
As for neurodiversity, Harvard Health describes it as, “the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways.”
They go on to explain that “[while neurodiversity] is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) it also applies to other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD and other learning disabilities.”
What Does the Research Show?
What does the research show? Honestly, not much. The research on autism and employment (or lack thereof) is limited and confined to only a few specific studies. One of which is discussed throughout this post.
Deloitte and auticon
Deloitte and auticon conducted a study where they interviewed 454 autistic adults and seven Canadian companies, each with at least one autistic employee.
Global News referenced this study by stating that “33% of autistic adults were reported being employed in 2017, compared to 14% in 2012. However, the numbers continue to pale in comparison to the 80% employment rate of adults without a disability.”
Overview of the Barriers to Employment
Auticon provided a summarized report of the study’s statistics, specifically the barriers to employment. They are as follows:
45% say they feel the need to mask their autism while at work
47% claim they aren’t comfortable disclosing their autism to employers
55% indicate they feel there’s a stigma associated with autism
56% say they’re treated differently once people learn of their autism
42% claim they’ve been the target of discrimination at work
The Current Job Market
The job market today is, if anything, bleak. Many Canadians are struggling to make ends meet, let alone find a job within their field.
In 2020, “48% of Canadian companies reported that they were experiencing workforce shortages. In September 2021, Statistics Canada reported more than one million job vacancies across the country.”
Thus, despite the plethora of jobs available the workforce is either not accepting positions or the companies are not actually hiring anyone.
And this isn’t too off base considering the number of jobs I’ve applied to myself and never heard back from. Even when I had some experience, I must have applied to 50 places in two days and never heard back from a single one. Unless it was an automated message or on the rare occasion a quick email to say they’d moved on to other applicants.
What This Means For Autistics
If the average workforce is struggling, what does this mean for autistics? For starters, many autistic people end up accepting basic entry level positions (and minimum wage pay). This is in part due to the struggles we face in the interview process, which I’ll discuss more later on.
The upside for autistics is that many tech companies are actively looking for neurodiverse and autistic employees to tap into new talent. It’s likely the only industry that is doing this, but it hopefully means more industries will improve on this in the future.
The Barriers to Employment
There are several barriers to employment for the autistic community from normal stereotypes and biases to the very neurotypical world we must conform to and navigate on a daily basis.
Stigma and Bias
The unemployment rate for autistics in Canada sits at about 67%. Of course this number is not fully accurate. Consider those who self-diagnose because of how challenging the diagnostic process is, as well as the number of individuals that are on the spectrum but don’t yet know it.
Compared to Canada, the unemployment rate in the UK “is as high as 78% and 85% in the US.” This article from the Harvard Business Review goes on to discuss a 2020 study where, “50% of managers surveyed in the UK admitted they would not hire neurodivergent candidates.”
Fifty percent. Half of the managers seeking to fill vacancies in their workforce choose not to hire neurodivergent or autistic candidates. I would like to ask them why, though I surmise it’s due to the common stereotypes around any and all disabilities.
The Interview Process
Let’s swing back to the Deloitte study where “40% of survey respondents said the interview process was a ‘great challenge.’”
These challenges that autistic people face in the interview process means hiring managers are overlooking and often dismissing highly qualified candidates because they are examining their social skills and “fit” into the company rather than the skills needed to do the job.
While I’ve succeeded in several interviews, even mock interviews while in college, I would often log off after the Zoom meeting and feel utterly exhausted because I was more focused on getting the answers “right,” and monitoring my facial expressions and body language to appear sociable and outgoing.
I was desperately trying to fit in and seem “normal,” even though very few of these social skills I was tested on would actually apply to the job I would be doing. I’ve always worked from home behind a computer, I’m rarely interacting with other people. But when I do it takes everything out of me to keep that smile on my face and my tone enthusiastic - which leads me into the next point.
Exhaustion and Burnout
Another barrier to employment for autistics is the proneness to fatigue, exhaustion, and autistic burnout. The Deloitte study concluded that, “more than half of the survey respondents said they feel exhausted at the end of their workday.” Something that, thankfully, does not go unnoticed by managers.
I’ve been known to request several days off work after pushing myself to work consistently for two or three months before burning out. It’s a constant loop of working like a neurotypical and then burning out.
The Never-Ending Dilemma
Speaking of loops, here’s where I’m currently at:
If the average person works 40 hours a week and is struggling to pay their bills or is living paycheck to paycheck - and being autistic, I know I cannot work a full 40 hour week, even being paid above minimum wage, I can only manage about 20-25 hours a week, then what does that mean for me?
Currently, I’m not able to work that much and am in the market for a new position or more clients. I also have no insurance and I still have all the same bills everyone else needs to pay.
With this in mind, it feels all too much like a never-ending cycle, like no matter what I do I’ll never quite get ahead. It’s frustrating. Even when I know my limits and how far I can push myself before I end up in burnout again.
A Positive Note
The times when I get stuck in this kind of spiral I do have to remind myself of the things I can control versus the things I cannot. I also try to focus on living in the present because no one really knows what could happen tomorrow, or next week, or next month. I try to remember to just keep going because there are upsides and advantages to being autistic and employed.
There is a long way to go when it comes to neurodiversity in the workplace, barriers to overcome, processes that need to be changed, but there are some upsides.
For example, in an HBR article titled, Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage, the authors examine the “growing number of prominent companies that have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talent.”
Two of those companies are Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and SAP. When they began their Autism at Work program, “applicants included people with master’s degrees in electrical engineering, biostatistics, economic statistics, and anthropology. Bachelor’s degrees in computer science, applied and computational mathematics, electrical engineering, and engineering physics. Some had dual degrees. Many had earned very high grades and graduated with honors or other distinctions. One held a patent.”
The article goes on, stating, “preliminary results suggest that the organization’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others.” This can be attributed to an autistic's ability to hyper-focus, meaning we can focus for extended periods of time on one thing without becoming distracted or losing interest.
In my own experience I’ve often worked on a single project for two to four hours at a time without stepping away from it once. Hyper-focus has its own set of pros and cons, but for businesses it means having employees that complete their work in a timely and efficient manner without getting bored.
To wrap this up, I recognize that everyone is struggling right now in this living crisis, but I think it’s important that autistics, like myself, and others with disabilities don’t get left behind. If we’re going to get out of this we need to do it together and we need to bring everyone we can with us.
The barriers and struggles autistics face in the workplace - their solutions and accommodations often benefit the entire workforce. This includes dimmable lighting for those prone to headaches, clear and direct communication between employees and managers, and flexible hours and hybrid work environments.
When we listen to and hear what every group has to say, more often than not, it benefits everyone involved. Autistic and neurodivergent individuals are told we carry multitudes of untapped potential. We know this. We just need the opportunity to show you.