Autistic Career Progression Does Not Exist. Here is Why.

Rachel Worsley  |  16/03/2024

Autistic people struggle to progress in their careers because they lack the know-how, connections and neurotypical support for career progression, according to a new study.

The Australian researchers analysed 33 studies around the topic of career progression for autistic people, focusing on the theory that career progression is about the knowing-why (introspection regarding why one wants to progress), the knowing-how (human capital - the development of relevant skills and experience) and the knowing-whom (social capital - the development of professional connections and organisational reputation).

They found that autistic people struggled to achieve all three competencies. For example, for the knowing-how, some autistic people may have bad experiences at school and university, which means they are less likely to be qualified and achieve career goals. Furthermore, full-time work environment may create inaccessible barriers and risk burnout, leading many autistic people to pursue casual or part-time work, which presents fewer career progression opportunities compared with full-time employment.

Autistic people may also struggle to develop the social capital relevant to developing their careers. That is because of differences in communication style, which can lead to mutual misunderstandings and missed opportunities for career progression in the workplace. Common workplace social dynamics, such as unwritten social rules, ‘office politics’ and hierarchical structures, can also pose challenges to autistic people seeking to advance in the workplace.

Up to 46% of autistic people may be employed in jobs below their capability and capacity, the researchers found. They blame the tendency of disability employment agencies to place autistic people in the first job that arises, rather than the job that is most appropriate for the individual’s preferences, skills and abilities. This cycle of underemployment limits the opportunities for developing career-related skills and results in a lack of appropriate employment experience compared with neurotypical people.

When it came to the “knowing-why”, the researchers identified that other people’s low expectations of autistic people’s capabilities could be a barrier to career progression, with some neurotypical people expressing concerns about autistic people’s “unrealistic” career expectations. They also highlighted a lack of career planning tools for autistic adults to help them set career goals and expectations.

When it came to “knowing whom”, the stigma faced by autistic people when disclosing their autism diagnosis was a major barrier to career progression. This is compounded by a lack of awareness programs in the workplace which could reduce stigma and promote acceptance of autistic people at work.

Autistic people may also feel they do not meet the criteria for neurotypical social adeptness which appears to be a key part of career progression towards a managerial role. Some autistic people express preference not to manage other people, but are presented with few other opportunities to progress in their careers which do not involve managing people.

“One way to address this concern may be to offer more tailored, individualised opportunities for career progression, moving away from a rigid model that assumes managerial responsibilities are the main criteria for success and towards a more holistic framework that recognises and values the diverse strengths and career aspirations.”

“This shift could involve creating pathways that emphasise skill development, project (rather than person) leadership or other forms of professional growth that do not require traditional managerial roles.”

As for the “knowing why”, the researchers recommend that employers don’t use artificial intelligence (AI) within their hiring processes which could screen out autistic candidates who have been denied education and employment opportunities. Accommodations such as giving questions in advance for interviews and work trials can also level the playing field for autistic people to gain meaningful employment and build on their skillset.

They also recommend autistic candidates be given more employment support, such as individualised career planning and goal setting, job matching, training on work-related skills and/or competencies and mentoring.

“This review identifies a growing need for more rigorous research that focuses on the real opportunities that are open to each autistic people to live - and work - in ways that are meaningful to them,” the researchers concluded.

You can read the study here.

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