Work in progress: An inside look at autism’s job boom
George glares at me from behind his desk. His hair is buzzed short and his mouth is set in a sneer. He asks about my prior work experience, then replies sarcastically, “Okay, well, what you’d be doing here would be a little different from that.”
This would be the toughest job interview I’ve ever been on, if it were real. Luckily, George is a digital avatar, speaking to me from a large screen. He’s part of a team of virtual job interviewers helping to train young adults with autism at the Dan Marino Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Students here learn workplace skills, train for industry certifications and complete internships. With the avatars (who may or may not be in a good mood), they also practice interviewing — a hurdle that otherwise can be insurmountable for job seekers with autism.
Learning to handle an interview is only the first step for people with autism looking for work. Often, they have no college degree, and if they do have experience, it may be from several jobs that didn’t last long. When at work, they may struggle with anxiety, have trouble communicating with their managers or estrange coworkers with their behaviors. In the United States, only 55 percent of adults with autism had worked at any point during the six years after high school graduation, according to a 2012 study. By contrast, 74 percent of young adults with intellectual disability had some work experience.