Discrimination against Australians with autism causes employment inequalities

11 APRIL 2024

Discrimination against Australians with autism causes employment inequalities

Australians living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can face specific challenges in day-to-day life, as distinct from others, which can be compounded with age.

Senior Lecturer and Course Director in the Charles Sturt School of Education Dr Rahul Ganguly explores the struggles of autistic Australians to secure fair employment in light of World Autism Awareness Month during April.

Many autistic people have defied societal expectations and surpassed barriers to their rights to education, employment and social inclusion to achieve greatness.

Well-known figures including Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, Henry Cavendish, Elon Musk, Emily Dickinson, Temple Grandin, Mozart, Sia and Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few in the long list, have channelled their autistic traits, strengths and perspectives into remarkable accomplishments that have shaped our world.

According to American activist, advocate and academic Temple Grandin, “Without autism traits, we might still be living in caves”.

Despite these significant contributions of autistic people to society’s development, the global unemployment rate for people on the autism spectrum is alarmingly high.

Unemployment rates a concern

In Australia, the unemployment rate for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) was 31.6 per cent, which is more than three times the rate for people with a disability at 10 per cent, and almost six times the rate for people without a disability at 5.3 per cent.

For autistic Australians with advanced degrees, the discrepancies in employment statistics might be worse.

Additionally, more than 50 per cent of unemployed autistic Australians reported difficulty finding jobs for three or more years.

Consequently, many autistic Australians find themselves in low-skilled jobs, have lower income levels and experience higher underemployment and unemployment rates than Australians without disabilities.

It’s not just limited to Australians either, with similar autism-specific employment findings reported internationally, including in the United States and the United Kingdom.  

Job instability another hurdle

In addition to the challenges of finding employment, job instability is common among autistic people, with employer-initiated terminations the most frequent cause.

Many autistic people affected by job instability have reported feelings of depression, isolation, low self-worth and frustration.

Although the research on job losses among autistic employees is sparse, there is evidence to indicate that the reason for high job loss rates is due to the inability of employers to address autistic employees’ interpersonal and social challenges rather than the job characteristics.

According to a recent study in the United Kingdom, 73 per cent of autistic employees from a sample of 95 individuals expressed that their managers lacked understanding and appreciation for their neurodivergent condition.

Furthermore, 60 per cent of the study sample reported encountering bullying and other workplace challenges, ultimately resulting in termination or voluntary resignation.

The cause of employment issues

There appear to be two narratives as to why autistic people struggle to get and keep jobs.

The research on employers’ attitudes and perceptions indicated that employers’ concerns were related to the time and effort to supervise and train autistic employees, the high cost of providing workplace accommodations and support, the social difficulties of autistic employees and low productivity.

In other words, employers’ hiring and termination decisions were related to the internal characteristics of autistic employees.

However, many autistic people perceived employment discrimination as a systemic issue rather than their traits.

For many autistic people, barriers to acquiring and maintaining jobs included rigid application processes, lack of adaptation to job routines, communication and social interaction.

In addition, many autistic people are faced with a high-stake decision to disclose their condition during their interview.

Studies have shown that disclosure has the potential to go either way, leading to both positive and negative outcomes.  

Support and understanding is key to change

Research indicates that autistic people can successfully maintain employment when provided with appropriate workplace adjustments, a supportive work environment and adequate social support.

Despite common misconceptions, autistic people individuals are capable of thriving in jobs that allow them to utilise their unique skills and strengths.

As we celebrate Autism Awareness Month, we need to allocate resources to nurturing long-term rather than short-term employment success for autistic people.

As the number of Australians on the autism spectrum continues to rise, it is not just a matter of social justice but of national economic health.

In other words, it’s not only the kind thing to do – it’s also the most beneficial thing to do for the overall economy and effective functioning of society.

Research conducted in Australia indicated that a decrease of 33 per cent in the unemployment rate among individuals with ASD could lead to a substantial $43 billion increase in the Australian Gross Domestic Product.

The Dandelion Employment Program in Australia has calculated that for every 100 individuals with ASD who were previously unemployed and enrolled in the program for three years, the Australian Government could save more than six million dollars through tax revenue growth, welfare benefits reduction, and lower unemployment service costs.

Creating a more inclusive, flexible employment environment would truly pay off on a broader socio-economic scale.


Media Note:

For more information or to arrange an interview with Dr Rahul Ganguly, contact Jessica McLaughlin at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0430 510 538 or via news@csu.edu.au

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