Autism at Work Today and Tomorrow

Neurodivergent people are finding their way, but more progress is needed.

Posted Jan 22, 2019

Autism at Work began as the idea to identify what autistic people are really good at, provide some supports, and let them do those things better than anyone. It started with German software giant SAP and expanded to many other companies, including Microsoft, HP, Ernst and Young, and even Ford and Home Depot.

SAP believed in this enough to put a senior executive—Jose Valasco—in charge of Autism at Work full time. He connected with me, Stephen Shore, and other autistic people and consistently integrated autistic people into Autism at Work planning. We’re in our fifth year together.  

The founders of Autism at Work saw how autistic kids got fixated on puzzles and patterns and thought they might grow up to be really good at software testing, quality control, and other things that required those cognitive abilities. Not all autistic people are like this, but some are.

Managers at those companies believed in their promise. They also suspected that they already employed many undiagnosed or in-the-closet autistics in all sorts of roles. So far, those people have stayed somewhat separate from the Autism at Work people.

Autism at Work has grown in both scale and breadth. From its roots testing software, it’s grown to encompass stockroom operations at Home Depot and CVS, production line work at Ford, accounting and business planning at Ernst and Young, and all sorts of technical work. Software remains the thing that people first associate with autistic workers but it’s just the tip of the iceberg now.

Today SAP has 100-some autistic people in Autism at Work and other companies have thousands more in total. But those same companies probably employ far more unrecognized autistics. What have they accomplished, and what role did neurodiversity play? That is an open question. The fact is that we don’t know where most autistic adults are, or what they do. Some may be innovators and leaders, just as others are unemployed and struggling.

In my work on behalf of Autism at Work and Neurodiversity in College, people often come out privately to me. They tell me they are afraid of discrimination if they make their autism public. They feel ashamed of their earlier struggles. Some feel work and life remain a huge challenge while others seem comfortable and confident. One thing they all have in common is that the public does not know who they are, nor do their coworkers.

Others are open, and they have mixed experiences. Some say it has been great to reveal their autism and find a supportive environment. Others came out to ostracizing or even job loss.

We need to change that, and my words alone are not enough to do it. Corporations and cultures must evolve so people feel safe speaking out. Those who fear they can’t do it today need to see others trod the path before them. We are starting to hear success stories of young people entering the workforce through Autism at Work. What we don’t have are stories of corporate triumphs made possible by older neurodivergent thinkers. Did those success happen? I’m sure they did, but others are doubtful.

As much as I believe in it, Autism at Work has its critics and naysayers, who think most autistics are too disabled to succeed broadly in today's workforce. The best counter to that will be autistic adults telling their stories. There is no doubt we face many challenges. All autistic people struggle with disability, even if it’s invisible to the average observer. Yet I believe many of us go on to find considerable success. I’ve told my own stories and I suspect there are many more who’ve done far more than me.  

There are also adults who have struggled to find success, and some who say they’ve failed. Many adults speak of medical complications, isolation, and seemingly insurmountable challenges. One of the best things we can do is shine light on that, so society as a whole is moved to help.

If recent research is a guide, many older adults are oblivious to their autism, while others are in denial or afraid to speak out. The first step will be overcoming the barrier of shame and encouraging a few older adults to step forward. I believe the trickle will become a wave—one that will pull Autism at Work and neurodiversity together into the future, and help drive a better quality of life for all of us, regardless of our degree of disability. They will be a huge inspiration to the community.

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