Adults with Autism Need Jobs, Not Handouts
Helping people with Autism secure paid employment is not just a social initiative, but an economic one
The Centers for Disease just reported that Autism rates in America have increased; now one in 59 children are on the spectrum. What amounts to a 15 percent rise in just two years is cause for alarm, especially given that experts cannot point to any one specific cause for this astonishing jump.
It is also cause for action, including a massive influx of funding for research to try and find such a cause, as well as for a significant expansion of education and other services necessary to help afflicted children and their families.
But for those of us who work with adults with autism, these high rates are cause for even more concern because the overwhelming majority of all autism-related funding, research, and services is geared to young children.
Yet, in the next decade, more than 500,000 people on the Autism spectrum will age into adulthood. And the U.S. is grossly unprepared to deal with this population. Studies project that direct and indirect costs for special education, paid caregivers, adult day care, and lost productivity for those who have Autism and their families who support them will rise to $461 billion dollars in the United States by 2025. It may top $1 trillion if the diagnosis rate continues to increase. Where is this money going to come from?
Exacerbating matters, these financial figures do not take into account the costs of job training, placement and support networks for adults on the spectrum. In fact, there is a severe lack of services designed to prepare, train and integrate the burgeoning population of adults with Autism into the workforce.
It is no surprise, therefore, that individuals with Autism face an unemployment rate of 90 percent and an under-employment rate of nearly 80 percent. This isn’t from a lack of ambition. I know from experience that people affected have the drive and desire to work. So, we must have a sense of urgency to foster employment opportunities for them. Every individual affected by Autism deserves the chance to find a paying job and a sense of purpose.
To be sure, Autism Spectrum Disorder comes with very complex challenges. It is a lifelong neurological disease that affects how one socializes, communicates and interacts with the world around him or her. For instance, individuals may have delayed gross and fine motor coordination, may miss social and emotional cues, may have little or no eye contact and may have difficulty reading facial expressions and body language.
But I would argue that a prospective employer must look instead at the strengths the group possesses. For example, those with Autism tend to pay extreme attention to detail, have a high degree of accuracy in visual tasks, are loyal, honest, reliable and can offer unique insights due to diverse ways of looking at things, ideas and concepts.
There is a group of small businesses that have recognized these traits and by doing so have risen to the challenge to serve this community better and ensure they are doing paid, meaningful work commensurate with their skills, including the company I co-founded, Spectrum Designs on Long Island, which provides individuals with Autism meaningful work opportunities to make branded products, such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, granola bars and water bottles for businesses large and small, including Google and other Fortune 500 companies.
But we are few and far between; much more needs to be done. We must work together as a society to come up with economically viable solutions to include and care for this growing population. Helping people with Autism secure paid employment is not just a social initiative, but an economic one. You are simultaneously diminishing dependency and fostering contribution when you step away from the traditional way that people view social causes as a hand out and instead are offering a hand up.
Finally, I would urge some outside-the-box thinking that can benefit not only individuals with Autism but the community in which they live. Parents, entrepreneurs and caregivers should join together to identify types of businesses that can grow and sustain while incorporating a disabled workforce. After all, innovation is born out of necessity and inclusivity is vital. As a nation, our goal should be that those with Autism who are equipped to work are employed to their fullest potential so they may become self-sufficient, taxpaying, productive members of society.
Patrick Bardsley is Co-Founder and CEO of Spectrum Designs Foundation, a Long Island-based brand design and merchandise non-profit company.
This column first appeared in the Long Island Business News.