Autism – Employment isnt working

March 25, 2021 - Adjust

Post written by Marianne Eloise.

Over the last year, employment has become unstable for every demographic. However, for disabled people who already struggled with the insecurity and inaccessibility of work, the pandemic has only exacerbated existing difficulties. A recent study by ONS found that the numbers are particularly dire for autistic people – more so than they were the last time similar studies were done, which is potentially down to the extra hardships of the past year.

These figures, which come from a study undertaken in 2020, found that just 22% of autistic people are in any type of employment. The findings come just in time for autism awareness week, so we want to explore the inequalities autistic people face in the workplace and the ways employers can better employ, retain and support autistic employees. Our director Daniel Aherne says, “I strongly believe our workplace should represent the society we live in. Autistic people are a part of the society we live in, so they should have a presence in every workplace, not only in ones where they have been marketed as an asset.”

“Just 22% of autistic people are in any type of employment”

The findings also reveal that half of disabled people aged 16 to 64 years (52.1%) were in employment compared to 8 in 10 non-disabled people. This means that autistic adults are among the disabled people with the lowest employment rate, not necessarily for lack of skills or desire to work, but for a number of other barriers that are out of their control. However, many are within the control of employers and colleagues – by equipping themselves to better understand autistic employees or potential employees, employers can improve these numbers and the satisfaction of autistic people.

“Autistic people are a part of the society we live in, so they should have a presence in every workplace”

What does the data mean?

Employment can have a massive effect on people’s wellbeing. While some autistic people don’t want to work or have high care needs and are unable to, many others would be able to work but are excluded from traditional employment for various reasons. The study also found that disabled people’s average wellbeing is incredibly poor (lower than that of abled people) and that anxiety levels are 4.47 out of 10, versus 2.91 for abled people. The proportion of disabled people feeling “lonely” “often or always” was higher, too, and while employment isn’t a fix-all, there is a link between working and happiness, especially as poverty can have such a grave impact on both physical and mental health.

“There is a link between working and happiness”

The data, while itself a bit depressing, comes after years of campaigning on the part of the National Autistic Society to have autistic people registered in official employment data. This means that the future could be brighter, as the data can be put to good use.

Speaking on the data and what it means, Jane Harris, the Director of External Affairs at the National Autistic Society, said, “These figures should help the government to realise the extent of this problem and hold itself to account on improving employers’ autism understanding and support for autistic job seekers and employees,” she added, “It’s vital that we see clear actions in both the forthcoming autism strategy and the national disability strategy on what the Government plans to do close the autism employment gap.”

Here, we’ll explore six of the barriers autistic people face to employment, and what can potentially be done to improve the outlook for the future, particularly after the coronavirus crisis.

One: A lack of qualifications 

The first hurdle most people will face when getting into work is the application form itself. When so many jobs require higher education or even just A Levels and GCSEs, many autistic people are excluded from the process immediately. The study by ONS also discovered that only 23% of disabled people have a degree versus 39.7% of abled people, while 15.1% had no qualifications at all.  A previous study found that less than 40% of autistic students complete their degrees, which isn’t necessarily due to any lack of intelligence or drive on the part of the individual. Social, communication, organisation or other support issues can gravely impact studies, forcing autistic people to drop out or avoid school entirely. Many autistic adults might not even have school-level education, either, as a lack of support in schooling often means they get in trouble or have to leave. If more employers recognised the exclusionary nature of requiring degree-level education for entry level positions and were more flexible in their requirements, it could change these dire numbers drastically.

Two: Difficulty with traditional application routes

With that being said, there are many other aspects of job applications and the hiring process that can be inaccessible to autistic individuals. Employers may judge potential employees on their eye contact, handshake, body language and other unspoken social cues even if the job itself will never require an employee to be social or public-facing. Video interviews, presentations and other screening methods when interviewing can be inaccessible or might not be the ideal way for an employee to show themselves in their best light. After all, everyone has a different working and communication style, so it makes perfect sense that everyone has a different interviewing style, too. Taking the time to ask candidates how they want to show they’re right for the job and giving them the room to do it in a way that shows their best side will ensure an equitable process, whether they’re autistic or not.

Three: A lack of experience

The necessity of experience for entry level positions is a catch-22 even for non-disabled people looking for work. For autistic people, it can be an even bigger hurdle. How do you get a job without ever having had a job? Particularly when the jobs that are considered accessible or entry-level often aren’t for people with social, sensory or other ability issues – bartending, retail or service might not have been an option. Additionally, someone with a disability that might have hindered their progress at school might not have been able to even consider getting an additional responsibility like a job until they had left. Again, being open to employees that have not had a job before, particularly for so-called entry level jobs, could change everything for someone.

Four: A lack of connections

In certain jobs and industries, networking is key. Whether it’s journalism, business, music or finance, getting to know the right people is often more valuable than experience, skills, qualifications, desire, or all of the above. However, many (not all) autistic people struggle with social interaction and might just not be in the right places to meet the right people. A more fair, equitable hiring system that seeks out underrepresented people and helps them to thrive and flourish will improve workplace outlooks for autistic people – and ensure that nepotism isn’t at play.

Five: Lack of access to a diagnosis

Many autistic people were not diagnosed until adulthood, particularly in the UK, where NHS waiting times and a lack of wider understanding around autism spectrum disorder can leave people lingering on waiting lists or in the dark. While things are getting better, women and POC are far more likely to go undiagnosed due to a lack of understanding – in fact, many didn’t believe that girls could even be autistic until very recently. Where marginalised identities intersect, people can have even more trouble accessing diagnosis. Navigating life as an autistic person undiagnosed means not having access to the necessary support to deal with the challenges that education and employment can bring up. For those who aren’t diagnosed until adulthood, life often doesn’t really feel like it starts until they have the self-understanding and the capability to request the support they need. The National Autistic Society has a treasure trove of information on late diagnosis and disclosure for individuals, including a guide to the benefits of disclosing. While they acknowledge that prejudice from an employer can be a drawback, they say that benefits include the fact that, “employers are legally obligated to support you and make reasonable adjustments for you at work”.

“Where marginalised identities intersect, people can have even more trouble accessing diagnosis”

Six: A lack of understanding in the workplace

With that being said, employers have to ensure that they are educated on and prepared for the challenges of autistic employees or potential recruits. Hiring autistic people for their skills, special interests or potential as an asset without considering their unique needs is can lead to difficulty for autistic employees. Autistic people are valuable in the workplace, but without the support they require, they can flounder at work.  A previous report by the National Autistic Society found that 43% of autistic people have left or lost a job because of their autism. Issues can include a lack of support, lack of reasonable adjustments, lack of understanding and even bullying or abuse by bosses and colleagues. By asking an employee what they need, researching reasonable adjustments and working with a consultancy like Adjust, you can ensure your workplace an autistic-friendly one. Every single person is different, and by working with employees on a one-one-one basis, you’ll always get the best results – for everyone, but particularly the individual.

For more information about the services Adjust can provide to ensure your organisation is inclusive for autistic employees contact us