High-functioning autism creating challenges in the public service

Federal government managers said they’re noticing a growing number of workers with so-called, invisible disabilities and it is creating some human resource challenges.

The number of people working with autism and invisible disabilities increasing in the federal government

Autism in the workplace

9 years ago
Duration 3:26
Employees debate disclosing "invisible disabilities" over concerns it will lead to discrimination rather than accommodation.

Suzanne Ford is often called into federal government offices when managers are frustrated and fed up with a worker.

“The person is looking at being terminated and it started as something as simple as the supervisor didn’t understand,” said Ford.

As director of services at Y’s Owl Maclure Co-operative Centre, Ford’s role is to work with people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

She said her agency is invited in to government departments including Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada to provide employment support.

Ford said the issues often include a worker’s social awkwardness, poor communication skills and lack of organization but there’s usually an explanation.

“It never surprises me when the person has Asperger’s Syndrome, chances are they may or may not know themselves. Their employer does not know.”

Asperger’s Syndrome is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Working with Asperger's

Ford said for some people it’s like landing in a foreign country and not speaking the language, pointing out that some people on the spectrum don’t understand sarcasm or they have trouble following verbal instructions.

“Sometimes people don’t recognize you’re angry with them or they can’t read social cues. It’s really about awareness,” said Ford.

“By the time we get called in, it’s crisis. I would much prefer do community awareness at the beginning before there’s a problem.”

Suzanne Ford consults with Jordan Edwards about better awareness for Asperger's Syndrome in the federal workplace. (CBC)
After working on several federal government contracts, Jordan Edwards is now underemployed – working as a receptionist.

Edwards has a university degree and a college diploma, but he also has Asperger’s Syndrome. He said he never understood why his contracts weren’t renewed.

“That was a big deal for me and it gave me a lot of self doubts,” said Edwards.

“I disclosed my disability, but I don’t think people fully understood and even now I don’t think they fully understand the anxiety that goes with it.”

Invisible disabilities increasing in the workplace

Government managers said they’re noticing a growing number of workers with so-called, invisible disabilities.  Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, employers have a duty to accommodate people with any form of disability.

Supriya Edwards has seen an increase in the number of people with invisible disabilities in the workforce at Statistics Canada. (CBC)
Physical conditions including visual impairments or wheelchair accessibility are rather easy issues to remedy, but Statistics Canada’s chief of labour relations, Supriya Edwards says the less obvious conditions are an emerging issue.

“We're learning as we go. We need to be aware of it. We need to pay attention and we need work with those employees,” said Edwards.

Suzanne Ford notes that one in 68 children born is now identified as being on the autism spectrum, and that means there are a lot of people growing up who will be intelligent, get a good education, but will no doubt find difficulties getting into the workforce. 

“We’d like to help them by empowering employers in the community. But we have no funding at this time. So we hope the federal government will see the importance of it.”

Ford says being invited to come to the table once someone has been traumatized is simply too late.


Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior investigative reporter with CBC Ottawa. She's also the multi-award winning host of the CBC investigative podcasts, The Banned Teacher found at: and The Band Played On found at: You can reach her at