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Autistic Lens

Poverty, the Ladder Effect on the Autistic Community

April 24th, 2024

Terri Hopkinson

For Everyone

If the economy is a ladder and the cost-of-living crisis has pushed everyone down a few rungs, then it’s grounded far too many autistic adults in this province. Where we could previously hang onto the bottom few steps, many of us are now unable to afford necessities.

April is Autism Acceptance Month and AutismBC is examining some of the reasons autistic adults are living in poverty through our Worthwhile campaign. We’ll explore some possible solutions and learn why Equity is Worthwhile and Stigma is Worth Less. 

Autistic Adults in BC

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental difference that impacts all aspects of a person’s life. Though every autistic person is different, many autistic adults struggle to sustain full-time employment and those who do are often underemployed compared to their skill level, experience, or education. Autistic adults have a substantially higher rate of unemployment than the general population, across the country. Some barriers to gainful employment autistic adults experience include: communication differences with employers/coworkers, high-support needs or co-occurring medical conditions, burnout, discrimination, lack of accommodations, and challenges in areas like information processing, sensory processing, executive functioning, and motor skills. Inaccessibility of a living wage is also married to the high cost of medical and therapeutic supports.

But the real problem goes deeper than finding the right job. In order to achieve financial stability, autistic adults in BC need:

1. Inclusion in the Workplace

Accommodating Autistic Employees is Worthwhile; Discrimination is Worth Less

A lack of understanding and accommodation in the workplace is one of the main reasons many autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed.

It begins in the hiring process, which often relies on a first impression, eye contact, body language, and picking up on subtle cues — all tasks autistic people commonly struggle with. Ideally, employers should be supported in learning how to front load an interview by providing an option for in person or video, an agenda that includes questions to expect and the people involved, and an adjustment period to the sensory input of the interview space including light, heat, sound, and smell.

Next is the hurdle of accessing accommodations. Workplace accommodations for autism are not often costly or time-consuming, but nonetheless denied regularly. Some examples of accommodations are wearing headphones or earplugs in the office, flexible/adjusted hours, or written instructions for tasks. Accessing accommodations often requires the employee to disclose their autism diagnosis, leaving them open to discrimination and stigma. Many workplaces do not have accommodation policies that reflect best practices of a disability framework.

Then comes the social culture of the workplace. Often the pathway to promotion is paved with social connections. Lunch with the right colleagues, a coffee with the right superior, or just an undefinable sense of ‘likeability’ can be the deciding factor between two equally competent candidates for advancement. Many autistic people miss out simply because their way of connecting to people looks different than their neurotypical peers.

Autistic people are met with these obstacles at every stage of their career, including post-secondary education and entry-level employment. There is minimal support for those transitioning out of high school, the point at which accessibility takes a sharp downward turn. From the very beginning of our careers, we are left further behind at every turn.

If employers were encouraged and supported to learn about autistic adults and co-occurring conditions, provide simple accommodations, and make small changes to hiring and promotion policies, they would be rewarded with a new pool of employees whose dedication, attention to detail, and focus is often unparalleled by neurotypical workers.

2. Sustainable Government Assistance

Better Investment in Disability Assistance is Worthwhile; Leaving Autistic Adults in Poverty is Worth Less

Current disability assistance rates do not come close to covering the cost of living in BC without additional employment income or financial support from family, often at the cost of further sacrificing health or rationing food or medicine.

One of the primary assistance programs available to autistic adults with Persons With Disabilities (PWD) status is Disability Assistance. A single person receiving the maximum benefit and earning the employment income cap would bring in $34,000 a year. This is already less than full-time minimum wage and, come June when BC’s minimum wage gets a much-needed raise to $17.40 an hour, the contrast will be starker.

PWD who are unable to work are left only with the benefit itself: $17,800 per year (assuming they are a single person and qualify for the maximum)—a number many reading this will recognise as “a few thousand short of rent.” For many, this means relying on family or a partner for a majority of living expenses. As the cost of living rises and wages stagnate, this becomes less and less possible for families who are already struggling, parents who are approaching retirement, the elderly, and caregivers who may discover late in life they are also autistic. It also leaves disabled people vulnerable to abusive relationships and family dynamics as there is no path to independence. Other PWD don’t have family to rely on at all and are left to struggle outside the system.

From there, issues with this program only get more complicated including income stagnation, inability to combine with EI benefits, and the oppressive nature of constantly being audited. It even effects marriage equality as two PWD adults cannot live in even a common-law arrangement without losing significant assistance.

It’s clear that this system needs to be reassessed with a person-first lens. If minimum wage represents the least the government thinks a person can live on, what are they saying about disabled people? 

3. Systemic Change

Inclusion of Autistic Adults is Worthwhile; Leaving us Behind is Worth Less

Without systemic change, there is no getting to the root of this problem. This is especially true for autistic adults who also belong to another historically marginalized group.

Autistic adults need readily available skills-training, education, and workplaces that support culture, gender and other intersectional needs. The systems that support our society were built with a bias. These biases, left unchecked, leave us open to discrimination, from employers as discussed above, but also from landlords, businesses, healthcare providers, educators, and our own government in ways that often have no recourse. It wouldn’t be unfair to say the system isn’t really working for anyone anymore, but this is most keenly felt by those of us it was never intended to support.

4. Your Acceptance

Understanding is Worthwhile; Judgement is Worth Less

Taking the time to learn more about autism in adults, especially the truth that differences are not shortcomings or failures, is one of the most powerful things you can do this April. Check back on the Worthwhile campaign throughout Autism Acceptance Month to hear from autistic adults on ambition, employment, disability benefits, workplace discrimination, and more.

Learning is the first step toward inclusion. And that’s worthwhile.

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