Many of us have probably heard of the disability employment gap - the gap that exists between the percentage of all people employed, 81.3%*, and the percentage of disabled people in employment, currently 52.1%*. That's a big disparity, right. What you may not be aware of is just how wide the gap gets when you look at the statistics for people on the autism spectrum. According to the Office for National Statistics' Outcomes for disabled people in the UK report, only 21.7% of people with autism are in any form of employment, the lowest employment rate of any disability category. That's not a gap, that's a chasm.
While work will not be appropriate for everyone, most people with autism want to work but are being held back by significant barriers to employment that exist, preventing people from even getting a foot in the door.
Let's look at the recruitment process. As autism can affect communication skills, interviews can be a struggle with questions and body language being misunderstood. The interviewer could be passing judgment if eye contact is not being made and the interview environment itself is not somewhere where experience, or skill, can necessarily shine through. Application forms, telephone interviews and testing can all be extremely stressful and off-putting.
And even once an autistic employee has managed to navigate the recruitment process, successfully keeping a job can also be tricky. Some employers do not appear to support neurodiversity, often 'difference' is not accepted in the work place and sensory issues in the work environment can cause distress.
Many people with autism will bounce around from job to job unless reasonable adjustments are made by employers to accommodate the different needs of that specific individual.
What kind of reasonable adjustments can be made?
By making some simple changes, employers can help their autistic employees not just survive, but thrive. It's important to remember that there's not a one size fits all solution here, as no person is exactly the same, but here are just a few examples of things to consider:
Sensory overload – some people on the autism spectrum experience sensory overload. This could be to do with noise, light, touch or smell. Noise cancelling headphones and a desk that isn't under bright lights or near a kitchen are reasonable adjustments that can easily be made.
Routine – some people thrive on routine and set working patterns. For these people, it's good to know exactly what parking space they'll be leaving their car in and what desk they'll be sitting at for the day, as this removes the anxiety of having routines disrupted and can make a huge difference to how the working day starts.
Providing a quiet place – meltdowns and/or shutdowns can happen to people with autism when they become overwhelmed. Providing that person with a safe space that they can take themselves to, if this happens, will help reduce the anxiety of experiencing these emotions at work.
Be flexible – If there's one good thing that's come out of the global pandemic, it's that employers have been forced to think again about flexible working patterns. While this won't suit everyone on the autism spectrum, flexible working will be the right reasonable adjustment to make for some.
Keep talking – the most important reasonable adjustment that can be made is to be approachable and make yourself accessible. Have open and honest conversations and work together to implement coping strategies.
I don't want anyone to know
Disclosure – do I tell an employer I'm autistic and fall victim to their conscious/unconscious bias or tell them, in order to benefit from the reasonable adjustments that can be made? The million dollar question. And one where the answer will be different for everyone, depending on their circumstances. But without disclosure, reasonable adjustments can't be made. This is where it has to start. People need to feel comfortable that they can talk about their autism with their employer without fear of judgment. And enabling this conversation will help both the employee and business thrive.
Are there specific talents that someone with autism can bring to a team?
Assumptions are often made that all autistic people want to work in IT but the truth is that just like everybody else, no two autistic people are the same, while some may want to work in IT, others want to work in the arts or other sectors.
There are many strengths to possessing a neurodiverse mind. Seeing the world differently to others often means that a problem will be approached in a different way and a solution found. Tenacity and commitment are characteristics that are surely appreciated in every workplace, two common traits of autism. Dealing with data and spotting patterns is something that comes naturally to many on the autism spectrum. And who wouldn't appreciate a little diverse thinking within their team?
There's a vast pool of untapped talent out there. People who can make businesses become stronger and more competitive, if these businesses are willing to stop seeing someone's autism as a problem and start viewing it as an asset.
The ONS Outcomes for Disabled People