The Last Acceptable Form of Discrimination

Suppose there was a population of people who had a 20 percent unemployment rate, and among those unemployed only about half were working full time. And let us suppose that only half of this population graduated high school, a small percentage of them went to college, and only a small percentage of them graduated from college. But even among those who graduated college — or even graduate school — there was still high unemployment and underemployment.

If there were such a population, we would surely consider it a national crisis, an issue of social justice.

And yet, there is such a population. I am talking about people on the autism spectrum. And I am one of them. My son is another.

My son is seven, so we are having to deal with the issues around school. Fortunately, the U.S. is one of the few countries that at least tries to accommodate students with autism. But once a student graduates, all social support evaporates.

I am one of those who did manage to not only graduate high school and college, but get a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. Graduate school is heaven to someone on the autism spectrum because you get to obsessively focus on a topic, you can use your excellent long-term memory, you can focus on details, and you can mostly work alone. Social demands are low and autistic traits are rewarded.

But then you graduate — and you are cast from heaven straight into the hell of at best underemployment. I have had twelve years of unemployment and underemployment, most of those years with me in complete ignorance of my having autism — meaning, with my not understanding what the problem was. I promise you that there is a large population out there in the same situation as I once was. Perhaps the vast majority of high-functioning autistics have no idea they are on the spectrum.

I have never been able to look people in the eye, and I have been told (often) that I come across as arrogant or intimidating. As you can imagine, that does not play well in an interview. Given that these are traits commonly associated with autistic people, you can see one reason why there is such high unemployment.

Given some of the social problems associated with having autism, I decided to start telling people. I told my students when I was an adjunct professor at SMU. On one of my student evaluations one of my students said they were creeped out at having an autistic professor; it is also perhaps no coincident that SMU was the only college or university where I did not teach both semesters. I told interviewers for a job. I wasn’t hired. I have told two employers, and was let go in each case.

It turns out that explaining one’s odd behaviors as being a result of autism only results in active discrimination against the person. And so I am left in a Catch-22. If I don’t tell, I’m often not hired or, if I am hired, let go before long because most of my behaviors are misinterpreted. If I do tell before I’m hired, I won’t be hired; if I tell after I’m hired, I either don’t get my contract renewed or I’m fired.

Businesses are missing out by focusing on our social awkwardness and faux pas. We have an encyclopedic memory, we have exceptional visual and pattern recognition skills, we are exceptionally creative thinkers, we love repetitious tasks, we are detail-oriented and focused, and we are reliable and loyal.

Most businesses would say these are traits they desire in an employee. Perhaps if we were also highly social, did not have a tendency to take things literally, respected hierarchy, and were not so innocently honest as to think people ought to know when they’re wrong (even when they’re the boss) or to point out the emperor has no clothes, we would all have jobs.

But the fact is that the way we think and act makes most people uncomfortable. We have to adapt to you at all times, but you feel no obligation to even try to return the courtesy. And we are the ones perceived as less flexible!

There is a group of people out there whose skills and education and intelligence is being wasted. And they are being wasted because of one of the last acceptable prejudices: the prejudice against people with different kinds of minds. It is time we stopped this form of prejudice. It harms not only those on the autism spectrum, like me, but it harms our economy overall. Our potential is mostly unrealized, and all too often we end up dependents rather than contributors. Yes, it harms us, but it also harms you — it harms everyone, including our culture, economy, and society as a whole.

It’s time you got to know us. It’s time you learned about us and from us. It is time we overcame this last acceptable form of prejudice and discrimination. We want to contribute. The only thing standing in our way is you.