A new study finds that adults with autism in supported employment report fewer communication problems, use more active coping strategies, and have higher “self-efficacy”—their personal judgment of their own capabilities—compared to those in unsupported employment.
The new research, from the Freie Universität Berlin, surveyed 66 German, employed adults on the autism spectrum ages 22 to 55. Forty-nine (36 females, 12 males, 1 other) were employed in non-autism-specific employment (NASE), involving regular jobs without support. Seventeen (all male) were employed in autism-specific employment (ASE) at one IT company, with work activities linked to specific skills demonstrated by the employees with autism.
Participants reported employment challenges that fell into three primary categories: social, job demands, and “formalities” (e.g. work environment, application process), and solutions that fell into two: intrinsic or external. Those in ASE reported fewer total challenges and social challenges than they expected, but more problems with the work environment/routine and application process. In contrast, participants in NASE reported having more challenges than expected overall. In particular, communication, work equipment/environment and routine, job demands, and supervisor challenges all occurred more often than expected. These findings suggest that employed individuals on the autism spectrum face different barriers and challenges depending on their type of employment.
The study also addressed how the participants dealt with employment challenges. The research team found that the ASE group was more likely to solve problems with tactics such as communication, acceptance, and practice and/or gaining further qualifications. Those in NASE were more likely to exhibit resignation or seek external help from the work environment. The authors referred to these strategies as “active coping” versus “avoidance coping.” Overall, the ASE group also solved slightly more of their total problems than the NASE group did.
The individuals in ASE reported higher self-efficacy overall. Self-efficacy is influenced by experiences of mastery and “verbal persuasion,” such as a colleague or supervisor expressing belief in the individual’s ability to complete a task. Mastery and verbal persuasion may occur more often in an ASE environment. However, this study only demonstrates correlation: It is impossible to say whether active coping leads to greater feelings of self-efficacy, or if those with greater self-efficacy are more likely to employ active coping strategies. One idea the authors propose is that the ASE environment may better facilitate and reinforce active coping strategies for its employees, making them more likely to use them again.
Males reported slightly higher self-efficacy than females, but the authors are quick to point out that all the females surveyed were in NASE. That placement could have been more challenging and resulted in a lower self-efficacy rating, rather than gender per se.
The results are complicated by the finding that individuals in both ASE and NASE experienced equivalent levels of overall life satisfaction, which might be a result of the large number of challenges for both groups. It could also relate to how important people’s jobs are for their overall life satisfaction.
Although the ASE group reported higher self-efficacy than the NASE group, both groups fell significantly below average self-efficacy for neurotypicals, which is of major concern. Exploring the reasons behind these discrepancies and working to change them should be a focus of future research.
Also, it’s important to remember that the study participants had already successfully navigated the employment process. According to an estimate from the United Nations, only about one-fifth of adults on the autism spectrum are employed. Inclusion and contribution to the community are critical for life-satisfaction for adults with autism (TRANSLATE 12/31/2015), so it’s reasonable to suspect that average self-efficacy for unemployed individuals with autism might be even lower.
This study illuminates the different challenges that employed adults on the autism spectrum face in different types of employment, and shows that ASE correlates with higher reported self-efficacy and active coping strategies. The authors encouraged future work to help individuals with autism identify their strengths and develop positive coping behaviors in the workplace.
But successful employment for individuals with autism is not the sole responsibility of those with autism. Employers can supply greater structure and provide quiet work spaces to reduce disturbing sensory stimuli for employees on the spectrum. Understanding each individual’s needs and accommodating them will improve the work experience and performance of individuals with autism, as well. The authors promote the idea that employment should focus on enhancing employees’ strengths (rather than eliminating deficits) and fostering positive self-efficacy. And employers take note—these practices aren’t only valid for individuals on the spectrum. They can improve productivity and the mental well-being of all workers.
Lorenz T, Frischling C, Cuadros R & Heinitz K. (2016). Autism and overcoming job barriers: Comparing job-related barriers and possible solution in and outside of autism-specific employment. PLOS One, 11(1):e0147040.
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