Toops Scoops: Autism and the Workplace

Is there anyone in your life who is autistic? If you answered "no," there probably soon will be; if you answered "yes," then you know about the challenges of this condition.

The Centers for Disease Control recently updated its estimate of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) incidence in the U.S. to 1 in 88, up 23 percent since the last report in 2009.

This study comes at a time when more employers are providing autism care services for their employees.

It's debatable whether the increase in the incidences of autism diagnoses are due to improved screening processes or if environmental factors are playing a role. But that's almost besides the point.

For decades, the medical community has grappled with the question of what causes autism. In the "good" old days (around the late 1940s, when the condition was first identified), so-called "refrigerator mothers," who didn't give their kids enough physical affection and attention, were to blame. Later the bugaboo was childhood vaccines, and since then, the finger of blame has been pointed at everything from gluten intolerence to maternal obesity, the most recent culprit. 

Again, although prevention would be nice, causation is almost a moot point. CDC finds that about 1 in 6 children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2006 to 2008, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. 

And autism isn't cheap. A study in 2006 by the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that it costs $3.2 million to take care of an individual with autism over his or her lifetime and that it costs society an estimated $35 billion each year to care for all individuals with autism.

Some state legislatures have decided it's an insurance industry issue. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have laws related to autism and insurance coverage, and at least 29 specifically require insurers to provide coverage for autism treatment. Other states may require limited coverage for autism under mental health coverage or other laws, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

In Illinois, for example, all individual and group health insurance policies and HMO contracts must provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders for children under 21, establishing an annual benefit of $36,000 for services. As in many states with an autism insurance mandate, the law doesn't apply to self-insured, non-public employers, self-insured health and welfare plans, or insurance policies or trusts issued in other states.

But the issue of autism in the workplace goes far beyond whether an employee-provided healthcare plan will cover the basics.

Employees with autistic kids face a lot of challenges, especially if their kids are severely disabled. Dealing with these issues can take away from productivity at the very least. On the other end of the spectrum, so to say, is the issue of what happens when these kids grow up and -- ideally -- enter the workplace themselves.

That's where I'm at now.

My 17-year-old son is on the autism spectrum. Luckily for us, he's very high functioning. He plays basketball and video games, goes to the movies with his friends and does yard and house work (complaining all the way). Since he was a little kid he's talked about being a chef or a baker, and I'd love to see him do that.

But people on the autism spectrum, even the lucky ones like Doug, need a boost in the workplace: job coaches, training, extra time to get things done.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amended Act (ADAAA), autism is specifically included as one of the conditions for accommodation. According to an excellent article at, "it's important to remember that the ADAAA urges employers to shift their focus away from determining whether or not the employee has a protected disability, and towards engaging in the interactive and accommodation processes." So yes, your workplace may have to include people on the spectrum.

The hallmark of autism isn't a lack of intelligence. Rather, it's "extreme deficits in social skills," meaning they might exhibit behavior such as interrupting others when working or talking, demonstrating poor listening skills, not making eye contact when communicating, or not correctly reading body language or understanding innuendo.

The good news? Along with their intellect, people with high-functioning autism have focus, attention to detail, superior ability to spot irregularities, a strong work ethic and a lack of boredom with repetitive tasks.

In fact, a fairly successful Illinois not-for-profit company is banking on the employability of folks on the spectrum. Aspiritech, which has been featured in the location and national media, hires people with high-functioning autism to test software programs. The business model is working so well that Aspiritech recently moved to bigger quarters and plans to expand.

So -- you might be hiring or working with someone with autism. Heck, maybe you'll be working for someone with autism.

I'd love to see that. 






About the Author
Laura Mazzuca Toops,

Laura Mazzuca Toops,

Laura Mazzuca Toops, National Underwriter Property & Casualty executive managing editor, is responsible for the Agent & Broker channel for Her more than 20 years of property & casualty insurance experience includes associate editor at Business Insurance, Midwest managing editor with Insurance Journal, and freelance work for insurers, brokers and trade associations. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Columbia College Chicago. She may be reached at


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