Asperger's syndrome has been in the news frequently of late. Growing attention is being paid to the employment challenges faced by people with this autism-spectrum disorder and the recent announcement that the label of Asperger's syndrome itself is slated to vanish with the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) – the so-called "bible of psychiatry", scheduled for publication in 2013 – sparking intense debate.
The decision to eliminate the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome has been greeted with hostility by some people with the condition, in part because this diagnosis carries less stigma than a diagnosis of autism. For some, it feels like an erasure of personal identity as well. Others view the change with less alarm since Asperger's syndrome is already classified as an autism-spectrum disorder and thus the change does not mean they are moving to an entirely new section of the DSM, or that they cannot receive a diagnosis and all-important treatment code, used to determine eligibility for insurance and benefits.
For job seekers with Asperger's syndrome, first identified in 1944 by Doctor Hans Asperger, there are significant barriers to employment. According to speech pathologist Barbara Bloomfield, unemployment rates for people on the autism spectrum can range from 75% to 97%, even when the economy is healthy.
Asperger's syndrome is characterized by difficulties with communication. Aspies, as people with Asperger's syndrome are sometimes known, have trouble reading body language and many social cues. Some have language-processing disorders, which make spoken communication challenging; Aspies can also have trouble with eye contact, modulating their voices, shaking hands and expressing themselves verbally.
For people on the autism spectrum, developing skills that can lead to gainful employment is challenging. It may be difficult to attend university to get a degree, for example, and it is hard to find work to build experience and a résumé. Communication is key to social success and people with communication disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome, may not be able to establish the basic connections with other people that are critical when seeking employment. It is commonly believed that Aspies are unemployable, when this simply isn't true.
Doing well in a job interview is challenging for anyone. For people possessing valuable job skills with this communication disorder, performing well in a job interview can be extremely difficult. The prospective employer reads the unwillingness to shake hands, difficulty making eye contact and hesitation in speech as coldness or incompetence, and the applicant is rejected.
Skilled Aspies may turn to other areas of employment when they cannot find work in their chosen profession. However, they still face the fundamental hurdle of the job interview. "Don't write me off" is the slogan of a campaign to improve access to employment and benefits for people on the autism spectrum from the National Autistic Society and it is quite fitting, as people with autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger's syndrome, are routinely written off by prospective employers – even though autistic traits can sometimes be an asset.
People with autism spectrum disorders have traits like a high attention to detail, very intense focus and a willingness and sometimes need to repeat tasks until they are perfect. These traits are ideal for people such as computer programmers, who need to be able to focus on sometimes highly repetitive tasks with a very small margin for error. The strict need for order found among some people on the autism spectrum can also turn into an employment asset in some work environments. A sharp-eyed Aspie can often spot imperfections and problems, which might go unnoticed by someone else.
In Britain, the Autism Act 2009 was passed to address some of the social disparities, employment among them, experienced by people with autism-spectrum disorders. It is estimated that 300,000 adults in England have an autism-spectrum disorder. Those who are willing, ready and able to work cannot find employment because they are unable to pass that most basic test, the social performance that is the job interview. Thanks to the work of disability advocates, disability employment advisors are going to be receiving autism training. This training is designed to improve the support system for jobseekers with autism-spectrum disorders so that they can navigate the job market more effectively.
Even with this support, it seems likely that people with Asperger's syndrome will continue to experience employment discrimination. Educating employers and making them more familiar with the needs of people with autism-spectrum disorders may improve chances in job interviews, but it is still difficult to overcome communication barriers, even when one is aware they exist. When two equally qualified people compete for a position and one is deemed more charismatic than the other, employers are more likely to choose the charismatic applicant.
Addressing this issue requires getting more people with autism-spectrum disorders into the workplace, including positions in human resources so that communication styles are less likely to remain a barrier to employment. However, there's a vicious cycle: in order to reach those positions, people with autism-spectrum disorders still need to pass the interviews.
This article was published on guardian.co.uk at 13.30 GMT on Tuesday 16 March 2010. It was last modified at 17.05 GMT on Friday 19 March 2010.