Autism and Work

Filed Under (ABA, Employment) by Estee on 17-01-2013

Listening to CBC Radio 2 this morning is a special report on autism and work. Interviewed is Thorkhil Sonne, Chairman of Special People Foundation. He has built an I.T. company, Specilaisterne that I wrote about a few years ago which hires autistic people. Citing some of the skills that belong to some autistic people – attention to detail, pattern-recognition skills and honesty – Sonne makes a great case for why he only hires autistic people.

It is no wonder that we must think about creating jobs for autistic people. In reality, we live in a labour market economy where making a living is a necessity and independence is highly valued. Yet, there could be some future challenges that we need to address when creating such opportunities lest we harken back to the Poor Laws and work houses for the disabled that have lead to sheltered workshops that still exist in Canada today where a “worker,” is paid thirty cents an hour. We are talking true sweatshops that are in operation right now in Canada. Sonne seeks to better that but there are still issues that we as a community must continue to discuss. That we live in a market-economy in the first place will challenge the equity notions that I posit.

First off, let us not reify autism and its skills. Autistic people have a variety of skills that are indeed useful in market economy as Sonne mentions. My concern however, is that the general population will now view ALL autistic peoples being the same. All autistic people are “love computers, are good at detail and are honest.” Such overgeneralizations can serve to further discriminate against individuals with autism.While applaud these needed efforts to provide equal pay for equal work, this does not preclude further discussions about our socially-constructed ideas regarding autism and people.

Many good folks are working hard to provide opportunities for autistc individuals. We must support these efforts while at the same time, bring these issues that continue to this day, to light. Autistic individuals are at risk of abuse in the workplace. Notions about perserverence where “typical people” don’t have the same attention, risks overworking the autistic individual (I’m thinking of Chinese workers here and crazy hours, choking on their own “production”). Perhaps we have to discuss that many autistic people tend to be sequestered and over-prompted from the time they are children and learn to comply with ABA therapy. Compliance may extend to the workplace where an employer may expect a certain way of working and attention and the autistic individual may not, by virtue of challenged social interaction skills, know how to negotiate. Perhaps this is one area teachers can look towards – self-empowerment and esteem building opportunities for children as we do for the typical population.

We must discuss supported decision-making and other aides and guardians to attend to the needs and desires of people with autism. If we are not willing to finance these supports and allow aide workers in the workplace or at schools, colleges and universities, we are further disabling environments for people with autism. We have to continue working for equity. While we must keep moving forward, we have to ensure safe-guards are in place and that autistic people are not all expected to be I.T. workers. What oher kinds of work might individuals in our community want? What is “contribution to society?” There are many ways, shapes and forms of contribution that must be considered, valued and supported.

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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.