Autism In The Workplace: Opportunity Vs. Discrimination


As I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed this morning, I came across a picture of a bunch of people, with a caption saying, “Share if you believe in autism acceptance”. If you click on the link that comes with the picture, you are taken to an online pledge entitled “Hire Employees On The Autism Spectrum”. The blurb points out that individuals with autism often have exceptional talents and ways of thinking, and can therefore be a valuable addition to any workplace. Then there is an online form where you fill in your name in order to sign the petition.

I believe that the intentions behind this are fabulous. Too many times, I see people being excluded from activities and opportunities simply because they have autism. It starts early in life, with kids not being invited to birthday parties or included in games (whether the child chooses to participate is another story – my point here is that it would be nice for them to at least be asked). As the child grows older, I am sure that exclusion extends to teenage activities, educational opportunities, and eventually, the workplace. I am all for taking steps to ensure that people with autism are given equal opportunities, and accommodations where needed.


Do we want a situation where employers are actively seeking out and hiring people with autism, simply because they have autism?

My son George is a whiz with numbers, although I suspect that this has less to do with autism than with simple genetics. My husband and I are both good with numbers, and so is my younger son James. We are a family of math geeks. And like me, George is good with computers. His autism definitely gives him a unique way of thinking and fantastic attention to detail in certain tasks. I see him growing up to be some kind of computer nerd – a programmer, maybe, or someone who actually puts computers together.

I would love to see some employer recognise his skills, see the value that he could add, and hire him. But I wouldn’t want his autism to be a factor in that decision. If he’s the best qualified candidate for the position, he should get the job. If someone else is better qualified to do the job, that person should be hired. Maybe George will need some accommodations during the interview and selection process. Maybe the hiring manager will have to use some creative thinking or some kind of quantifiable measure to choose the right candidate. Maybe, if George is the one selected, some workplace accommodations will need to be set up for him.

But I strongly believe that employment selections should be based on qualifications and ability to do the job, and not on whether or not the person has autism. If George’s co-workers one day say things like, “Wow, that autistic dude is awesome at what he does”, I would be completely fine with that. If, on the other hand, they say, “Yeah, George is good at his job, but he was only hired because of his autism”, that would make me sad.

I believe the hiring process should be fair, but it has to be fair to everyone. Hiring someone because of what disability he or she might have is unfair to the individual, and it’s unfair to other people.

There is a place for the online pledge that I described earlier, but I think it should be differently worded. Instead of urging employers to “hire people with autism”, the call should be for employers to give people with autism an equal chance.

What do you think? Is a drive to employ people with autism a good thing, or is it a form of discrimination that could be unfair to everyone?

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Kanemojo. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.



Autism Brothers

Sometimes, when you’re five years old and your big brother has autism, life just isn’t fair.

This weekend I spent a lot of time worrying about my son James. The worrying was prompted by reports from his before- and after-school program that he’s been acting up and is “always in trouble.” Initially, my husband and I put this down to James’ independent nature. He is a strong-willed child who is currently going through a phase of pressing other peoples’ buttons and seeing how far he can go.

But my gut instinct is telling me that I shouldn’t be giving James a hard time about his behaviour in the program – at least, not yet. Not until I have had a meeting with the program administrators to get a clearer picture. I have this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that there is something else going on here, something that might be making my baby unhappy.

About six weeks ago, we went through a decluttering blitz at my house. We got rid of toys and clothing that the boys had outgrown, and we threw out stuff of our own that has been lurking in boxes in our basement since Noah built the ark. One of the items we found was a calendar from a Chinese restaurant. It has the entire year on one long piece of fabricky-type stuff that rolls up like a mini-blind. James was fascinated with this thing and asked if he could have it. I said yes, and passed it over.

Last week while James was playing with the calendar, George kept grabbing at it and saying, “Mine!” James was getting upset because George was bugging him, and George was getting upset because he wasn’t getting the calendar. The situation escalated to the point of George having a meltdown and trying to headbutt James. And in order to stop George from going off the deep end, my husband took the calendar from James and gave it to George.

James was devastated. He sobbed his little heart out. It was bedtime anyway, so I carried him to his bed, lay down beside him, and held him tight. My own heart felt like it was breaking.

James didn’t see that my husband had been trying to stop a bad situation from going completely out of control. He just saw that we had taken away something that belonged to him, and given it to George.

There have been other times when George has gotten what James must perceive to be preferential treatment. We have to make allowances for George’s tolerances and levels of understanding. When James gets a timeout, he understands that he is being punished for something. This is completely lost on George: consequently, George never gets timeouts. We have different expectations of the two boys where it comes to sharing their toys with each other. Sometimes, family outings have to be cut short because George is not coping.

I cannot help asking myself: is it any wonder that James is trying too hard to assert himself in an environment other than home? Could it be that his perceived lack of control within his family is leading him to try and establish it elsewhere?

I try hard to make it up to James in other ways, but I wonder if I am doing enough. My mind keeps coming back to the idea that this poor kid probably doesn’t even have faith that his toys will remain his own. I worry about whether we are expecting James to have more coping ability than he is developmentally capable of.

It is clear to me and my husband that James loves his brother. He is always – with increasing success- trying to get George to play with him. When George is being reprimanded for something, James is standing up for him. And sometimes, when James wakes up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, he crawls into bed with his big brother and the two boys snuggle up to each other.

As much as they love each other, though, it seems to me that at times, the happiness of one has to be sacrificed for the needs of the other.

And that just isn’t fair.

(Photo credit to the author)