Employers with vacancies to fill are increasingly reaching out to talented but under-employed disabled people.
Disabled people are under-represented in the workforce and autistic people are among the most under-represented of disability groups. Yet autistic people are also increasingly recognised as often having valuable strengths in logical thinking, attention to detail, precision and focus. Many have impressive qualifications and CVs. So why the employment gap?
Firstly, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about autism and myths about autistic people. Many people have a little knowledge through an autistic relative or acquaintance but are not fully aware of the diversity of autistic strengths, challenges and capabilities. Often, non-autistic people’s awareness is of autistic children, not adults who have learnt to articulate their needs and developed strategies to handle challenges.
Secondly, lack of understanding breeds wariness. Most want to be inclusive but often worry about getting something wrong and making a situation worse. Some recruiters fear accommodating autistic employees will be too onerous. Hiring managers concerned about team as well as individual wellbeing and productivity look for reassurance that a new employee will ‘fit in’. Autistic people can often stand out as different.
Thirdly, standard recruitment practices favour neurotypical candidates. Autistic candidates are more likely to be strictly honest about their skills and experience and more likely to rule themselves out of applying for a post because they perceive they don’t fully meet all the criteria. They are often less good at selling themselves to recruiters. Interviews are a minefield for many autistic candidates. Misreading of body language (on both sides), imprecise questions and lack of contextual information and thinking space are common pitfalls for autistic people. Add to this a challenging sensory environment for an individual and the chances of success are decimated, regardless of their skills and expertise.
Fourthly, once in post, many work environments and practices present day-to-day challenges. Autistic people do not always know immediately what adaptations will be helpful or have the confidence to make requests. This is particularly the case for people early in their working life and/or who have recently received a diagnosis.
Finally, sadly many autistic people have painful past work experiences. Expectations of misunderstandings or being judged can take the shine off the excitement of a new job or put a candidate off applying at all. Some will have experienced being pushed to the point of breakdown by a build-up of stress, anxiety and exhaustion from continuous masking in order to fit in with previous unhelpful workplace norms.
So, are the hurdles to employing autistic staff simply too great? Not at all! At least one in 100 people are autistic and autistic people can and do work in every sector. The chances are, you already have an autistic colleague. Not everyone chooses to disclose and many do not have a diagnosis or are not aware that they may be autistic. Creating an autism-inclusive work environment will help to retain experienced staff, not just to recruit new talent.
Every autistic person is different; there is no fixed list of adjustments that will work for all. However, common accommodations are inexpensive and many can be built into the design of work practices and environments. Examples include: providing an allocated desk, warning of alarm tests and providing clear written instructions.
Our Autism Works! trainers emphasise that much of what is required to make a work environment inclusive is simply good, person-centred management. Clear, timely communication; providing contextual information and written agendas or instructions can make a huge difference to an autistic individual’s ability to thrive, rather than survive, in their role. These things cost little and benefit all staff.
Flexible work environments value and embrace difference, allowing everyone to find their place and enabling creativity and learning. Autistic people are often great at problem-solving and identifying improvements through questioning and approaching issues from a different perspective. An employer who is open to accommodating individual needs and harnessing employees’ skills and interests is likely to be rewarded with high productivity, conscientiousness and loyalty.
Embracing difference doesn’t have to mean compromising on work output or quality. Let’s now focus on strengths and embrace all forms of diversity, including neurological.
About Into Work
Into Work's vision is a world where autistic people, disabled people and people with long-term health conditions have equal opportunity to gain meaningful employment, receive fair treatment in work and build careers. Our ultimate goal is to create a more accessible and inclusive society where disabled people are able to fully contribute and fulfil their potential. We believe inclusion and diversity are assets, benefiting everyone.
Our Autism Works! project receives funding through the Scottish Government Increasing Understanding of Autism Programme, managed by Inspiring Scotland. Our co-produced Autism Works! training for employers is built on real-life workplace experiences and delivered by three skilled autistic trainers.
For further information, see: Autism Works! - Into Work
Kat Allen is lived experience and training lead at Into Work.