Probing Question: Can autistic people succeed at work?

July 16, 2010 By Chris Tachibana, Pennsylvania State University
Probing Question: Can autistic people succeed at work?
People with autism or Asperger Syndrome may excel in computer-related tasks. Credit Brookdale Care Home

The actress Claire Danes, usually so expressive and radiant, looks blank and awkward. The scene is an HBO movie in which Danes plays Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who became an acclaimed animal behavior expert and cattle-chute designer. In real life, Grandin says that autism makes social interactions difficult, but gives her special abilities that make her better at her job.

Can autistic people succeed in the workplace?

Yes, with help, says Kimberly Schreck, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State. She develops educational programs for children with autism, and her goals include teaching them the skills they need for future employment.

At least 1 in 110 American children have an autism disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. "The rapidly growing numbers of children diagnosed with an represent a significant proportion of the future population and work force," says Schreck. Preparing them now means "a large number of these potential workers can successfully contribute to society and the workplace, rather than requiring taxpayer support into adulthood." The key, Schreck notes, is early intervention with a combination of applied behavior analysis, or ABA, and educational and vocational training. ABA teaches autistic children the verbal, motor, and social skills needed to function in society. ABA specialists figure out how an autistic child can learn best by monitoring the child's behavior, eliminating conditions or objects that trigger unwanted behavior, and rewarding desired actions.

The concept of training people with autism to be valued employees is a growing trend in business. Last year, the Chicago non-profit company Aspiritech began training people with autism to be software testers, based on their exceptional ability to perform repetitive tasks without losing focus. "People on the autism spectrum have a variety of skills, depending on the individual," says Schreck. "However, in general, people with Asperger Syndrome have normal to above normal intelligence; are able to communicate; and have strengths in completing concrete, logical tasks. People with more severe autism would probably be more successful with clearly delineated tasks and routines. Many of the autistic adolescents that I have worked with could complete assembly, sorting, and organizational tasks."

Still, getting people with autism to succeed professionally takes care and training, for both the employee and the employer, she explains. The potential employer has to be ready for challenges in communication, as people with autism need especially straightforward instructions, and may have difficulty understanding slang, jokes, and cultural differences. Physically, people with autism may have different ideas about personal space. "Unusual behaviors such as hand flapping and rocking may cause difficulties in employment involving the public," says Schreck.

But author, speaker, and Colorado State University professor Temple Grandin shows that excelling in demanding careers is possible for those with . After portraying Grandin on film, Claire Danes remarked "She has strengths that she really exploits… she's a real success by anyone's standards."

Explore further: Cases of childhood autism increasing in UK

Related Stories

No link found between autism and celiac disease

May 1, 2007

Contrary to previous studies, autistic children are no more likely than other children to have celiac disease, according to new research that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 59th Annual Meeting ...

Children with autistic traits remain undiagnosed

March 22, 2010

There has been a major increase in the incidence of autism over the last twenty years. While people have differing opinions as to why this is (environment, vaccines, mother's age, better diagnostic practice, more awareness ...

Study: Autism affects all brain functions

August 16, 2006

A U.S. study has provided evidence that autism affects the functioning of the entire brain, not just communication, social behavior and reasoning.

Study: Fever may ease autism for a while

December 24, 2007

Anecdotes about fevers triggering "normal" behavior in autistic children now have a scientific study to back them, researchers in Baltimore report.

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study of Picasso's bronzes uncovers new details

February 17, 2018

Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musee national Picasso-Paris' ...

Humans will actually react pretty well to news of alien life

February 16, 2018

As humans reach out technologically to see if there are other life forms in the universe, one important question needs to be answered: When we make contact, how are we going to handle it? Will we feel threatened and react ...

Using Twitter to discover how language changes

February 16, 2018

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have studied more than 200 million Twitter messages to try and unravel the mystery of how language evolves and spreads.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 16, 2010

Can autistic people succeed in the workplace?

Guess that would depend on the level of the disability. Mild autism probably helps in some fields, look at some of your Professors.
not rated yet Jul 17, 2010
Dear Editors at PhysOrg:
Conversation with Cousin about Aspergers* led to some interesting Hypotheses.
1. Are any Research Groups doing 'Brain Wave' studies . . . A Device which could be worn for a period of days, that would monitor and record 'Intra-Cranial' activity for evaluation of thought patterns, for evaluation of commonality in Autistic and/or 'Normal' Brains?
2. How would one offer to participate in such a 'Study'?
3. Would one be assured that No Transmission would occur? ie. Mind Control! "Record Only"!
4. Would the Wearer be assured True and Correct interpretation of such recorded 'Brain Wave' Activity, and how such relates as to 'Normal/Autistic' continuum?

I could bear the 'Jokes' which would come with the 'Aluminum anti-Alien Antennae' . . . were I assured of learning the Results of such Test.

*Aspergers* has recently been removed as a separate Autistic Syndrome, and has been 'lumped in with' Autism.

Please RSVP!

Roy Stewart,
Phoenix, AZ

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.