Think Out Loud

How Can Workplaces Better Serve Employees With Autism?

By Clare Duffy (OPB)
Portland, Oregon March 24, 2017 9:47 p.m.
Dora Raymaker is a social work professor at Portland State University.

Dora Raymaker is a social work professor at Portland State University.

Kelly James / Portland State University

After spending hours in her office logging data, Dora Raymaker will occasionally run around the block six times as a stress reliever. That ability to drop her work and spend time unwinding is a testament to the flexibility of working in a high-level professional setting, she said. It’s also a privilege she has as a person falling on the autism spectrum working a specialized job that many others with autism don’t experience.

A social work professor at Portland State University and co-director of the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education, Raymaker says she wouldn't have survived her professional life without workplace accommodations.

"I need flexible hours, I need a lot of work from home, I need a lot of control over my sensory environment," she said in a recent interview with "Think Out Loud" host Dave Miller.


Raymaker said she suspects skilled employment — jobs requiring some sort of training, higher education or certification — may actually be a better fit for people with autism than the entry-level positions like cashier or bagger at a grocery store, where vocational rehabilitation programs often place them. High-level positions, she said, allow for more control of one’s workplace conditions.

Raymaker recently received two grants to study autism in the workplace. She will be interviewing more than 90 people with autism, employers and representatives of programs that seek to aid people with autism in gaining employment over the next two years.

"What I'm looking for is called leverage, it's the place where the problem is happening so you can make an impact and kind of change the way that everything is behaving by just impacting that one place," Raymaker said. "It could be that employers just don't know how to support people well."

Raymaker said past studies have looked at barriers confronting people with autism in the workplace, but she plans to research what leads people with autism to success in high-level professional settings. Ultimately, she hopes to create an “intervention” that could be used to improve workplace experiences for other people with autism and their employers.

And, Raymaker said, the study's findings don’t just have the potential to aid the autistic community, but could benefit employers looking to diversify their workforce.

“There’s an incredible value in having a diverse workforce,” Raymaker said. “Even though you may not be bringing in someone who enjoys water cooler talk very much, you could also be bringing in somebody who has a fresh perspective on how to go about solving problems or getting the work done.”

Click the audio player above to hear Raymaker's full conversation with "Think Out Loud."