Autism in America: gratuitous barriers to productive employment

 I wrote this Out In Left Field post some time ago, but the concerns I express here endure. However, I’d like to add two additional points:

1. The job prospects of many higher-functioning autistic individuals have been even further compromised by the ongoing expansion of “autism” to include two groups: 

  • people formerly diagnosed with Asperger’s
  • people who advanced through school without any special supports and who were diagnosed only after reaching adulthood (despite the fact that the symptoms of autism, as per the diagnostic criteria, must be present in childhood). 

This means that companies who’ve made it their mission to allot a certain percentage of their job openings to “autistic individuals” are often filling their quotas with hirees who barely meet the criteria for autism.

2. There are, on the other hand, some superb and dedicated job coaches at some of the more truly autism-friendly colleges and universities who have made it their priority to work with *all* their autistic graduates, including those with more significant autism symptomology, to help them find gainful employment.

Autism in America: gratuitous barriers to productive employment

America prides itself on being way ahead of the rest of the world in its treatment of people with special needs. And sure, the U.S. probably has more accessible buildings, studded curb cuts, and special ed support services per capita than any other place on earth. More therapists, therapy rooms, weighted vests, preferential seating, FM-systems, enlarged screens, sign language interpreters, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, assistive communication, IEP meetings, extra time on tests, offices of disability services, etc., etc.. The U.S. can probably also boast pre-eminence in pro-special needs lip-service–all that public advocacy, all that sensitivity training, all those feel-good articles, and all those Disability Studies programs.

But when it comes to people with High Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, we fall far short in a number of key ways. In particular, we’ve erected a number of uniquely American barriers to productive employment.

First, there’s the uniquely American “college for all” movement, which, combined with our growing obsession with credentialing, means that more jobs and vocational training programs than ever require college degrees—or at least strongly prefer applicants who have such degrees—including jobs and training programs that in other countries require only a high school diploma, if that.

Then there’s college itself. In most other countries, even if you do go to college, you don’t have to take courses outside your area of specialization. As a result, if you’re a biophysics major who can’t write a decent literature or history paper, you can still be confident you’ll get your degree.

But here in the US, getting a decent job means succeeding in a variety of different courses in college, including college English and various other humanities classes. And, for those on the autistic spectrum, such courses are frequently areas of disproportionate weakness.

College-level distribution requirements, in theory, need not be fatal to a bright, moderately autistic student. At Canadian colleges, I’ve been told, there are English courses specifically designed for computer science majors: courses that differ from those for literature majors. And even though American colleges do not tailor their English classes in this way, an American autistic student could, theoretically, satisfy an English requirement with a course in expository essay writing as opposed to one in the 19th century novel.

But current trends in American education, extending now all the way into college, are making the required courses less and less hospitable to autistic kids—even at schools that have a relatively small number of distribution requirements and profess to be autism friendly.

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