Non-scientific insights and practical considerations to enhance job retention and career satisfaction.

By Rob Crawford, M.Ed

Adults face many challenges and transitions throughout their careers, including competing for jobs, starting new careers and entering new jobs or companies. The difficulty of obtaining and sustaining employment for many adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) makes the success of those who do accomplish this very inspiring.

There is little research to explain why some individuals who have Autism with ADHD succeed in the workplace and why others do not. Workplace settings present a wide variety of diverse occupational research challenges.

Because the impact of the conditions on the individual varies from setting to setting, researchers may find it difficult to determine what aspects of a person’s job performance or lack of performance can be directly attributable to the disorder.

Common Barriers to Success

Many adults who struggle to cope and survive in the workplace tend to face similar obstacles:

  • Lack of social maturity and understanding of the demands of the workplace
  • Unawareness of personal limitations
  • Use of circular logic and rationalizing away personal responsibility when faced with failure
  • Retreating when successful
  • Difficulty with job training because of an inability to perform or catch on to multi-step/multi-task procedures
  • Inability to distinguish aspects of the job and environment that are controllable from those that are not

Factors that Contribute to Success

There are key factors that can help individuals with ASD and ADHD perform well in the workplace. A good starting point is for them to clearly understand what personally matters most in their job or career. Focusing on the meaning, nature and importance of their work can provide a roadmap through difficult and challenging times.

For many, getting a job is easy; keeping it is difficult. The following is a self-inventory to identify what is most important in a job or career:

  1. What aspects of this job or career are consistent with my values and beliefs and help me further these values?
  2. What working conditions do I need to feel happy?
  3. What tradeoffs and consequences am I willing to accept to determine if this is a good choice?
  4. What level of risk am I or should I be willing to take to be successful?

The last question is particularly important when it comes to disclosing or not disclosing the diagnosis to the employer.

There are also other considerations for the candidate with these conditions to remember before disclosing, such as:

  1. Employers are not necessarily well informed about ASD or ADHD
  2. Many individuals with these conditions are not prepared to be effective self-advocates
  3. Adults with the disorder have not been taught how to determine accommodations based on job tasks
  4. Employers are ill-equipped to understand and provide legal accommodations
  5. Adults with ASD/ASHD are usually unaware of their job competencies

Disclosing ASD/ADHD to an Employer: Risks and Benefits

In some instances, employees may choose to disclose to their employer that they have a disability in order to receive accommodations or adjustments in the work environment.

They may be interviewing for a new position or are being considered for a promotion that carries added responsibilities, which may be directly affected by ASD/ADHD-associated functional limitations.

If they choose to disclose, they open themselves up to additional employer scrutiny and must be prepared to answer various questions, including the following:

  • What exactly is the individual’s disability?
  • What kind of modifications does the person need in the work environment?
  • How will the ASD/ADHD interfere with the employee’s performance?
  • Why should the employer hire the candidate (or give him or her the promotion) when there are other applicants that do not have AD/ADHD?
  • How will the candidate be able to lead a team and get the work done?

By keeping in mind that the employer just wants to know what the individual can do, how they will do it and what results they can expect, the person with ASD/ADHD can focus on the functional assets and limitations that are relevant to the environment. It is important that he or she does not obsess or have anxiety over what the employer’s intentions are in asking questions or voicing concerns.

The following are questions that individuals can ask themselves and use to convey their qualifications and assets to their employer:

  • What can I do? (skills, knowledge, education, experience)
  • What will I do? (motivations, interests)
  • How will I fit? (work style)

This focus and balance can be achieved by deciding on a position, career or promotion after looking at what is required both during training and on the job. Avoid job searches that are too narrowly or broadly focused. Individuals should resist the impulse to go after jobs just because of the money, such as “earn $10,000 a week from home, no experience necessary.”  Instead, they should concentrate on jobs that are interesting and consistent with their values and beliefs.

Workplace Culture: Finding an ASD/ADHD-Friendly Environment

It is important for job seekers to assess whether the workplace culture and environment of their prospective job and career is “ASD/ADHD user-friendly.”

To determine compatibility, it is important to determine whether the company is receptive to disclosure and tolerant of personal work habits, such as messy work space, need for quiet work area, tendency to take breaks and walk around.

By assessing these factors, individuals with these conditions can anticipate no-win situations to be avoided. By understanding the environment and culture of the company, individuals can determine if the job is right for them and if they have the required skills and knowledge for the position.

To understand the required skills and knowledge, the individual should analyze and compare technical performance factors such as how personal skills, abilities, training, education and experience relate to specific position within the company.

There will also be a need to identify essential functions and environmental considerations of the job. It is also helpful to anticipate potential functional assets and limitations related to ASD or ADHD that could affect the expected levels of job performance. This last step would include determining what compensations, accommodations, modifications or strategies for the employee that are practical and reasonable for the employer.

It may be helpful to develop a long-term career ladder that estimates time, experience and continuing education requirements to move up to higher levels of responsibilities. Prospective employees should find out how many and how often potential openings occur.

In-house training and continuing education programs can help individuals demonstrate and establish their job-related and personal competency, capabilities and capacities, which usually results in greater flexibility on the part of the employer to handle adjustment problems with the new tasks.

When offered a promotion or position, the individual should obtain specific timelines for performance evaluations and gain an understanding of when and how performance will be evaluated. If there is a need for accommodations, he or she can propose and develop a process through which the employee and employer can review the effectiveness of the interventions and need for adjustments.

While there seems to be evidence of many success stories of adults with ASD/ADHD who are self-employed and have found a controllable “niche” in which to flourish, most of those seeking entry or upward mobility in the workplace have to live and play by the rules of a world that has little understanding of or sensitivity to the emotional impact of having this non-apparent disability and the costs to the individual trying to “keep it together.”

Long-term satisfaction and a sense of personal accomplishment, competency and value for adults with ASD with ADHD will happen in response to reframing personal and employment experiences into positive aspects of life and growth. Recognizing and building on individual assets and managing functional limitations can put people in charge of their own future.

Utilizing these strategies and pragmatic approaches can lead the adult with ASD/ADHD to increased personal competency by helping to identify and find what success or satisfaction in both life and work.

Rob Crawford is the co-founder and CEO of the Life Development Institute, a comprehensive program for adults with learning disabilities, AD/HD, high functioning Autism and other related non-apparent disabilities.