It’s a sobering statistic that over 80%
of autistic adults are not in full time employment. There are some in part-time jobs, some on
gig-economy contracts, a number doing voluntary work or self employed,
but according to published figures, the number of autistic adults in paid, full time jobs
amounts to just 16% Compare this to the general population where
the figure is 82% or even to people with disabilities in general
at 52% and the scale of the problem facing people
with autism becomes starkly apparent Considering that the needs of a significant
number of autistic people are relatively easy to accommodate for, the question that has
to be asked is – WHY? In the UK the Equalities Act of 2010 is in
place to prevent discrimination in the workplace, including in the recruitment process.
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 is provides similar protections in the US
and the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act is the Australian equivalent.
Across the world every United Nations country is signed up to the CRPD –
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a starting point for member nations to build their local legislation.
Despite these legal protections, almost every autistic person I have spoken to or read their
experiences, has been rejected for jobs because they were honest about being autistic on their
applications. Even people with lofty qualifications and
outstanding work records have found the offers have dried up
once they put the word “autistic” on their applications following adult diagnosis.
There appears to be such fear of employing autistic people that many employers are willing
to break the law rather than interview us. It’s important to bear in mind that the
employment statistics for autistic people only cover those of us who are diagnosed.
Estimates of the number of autistic people who are not yet diagnosed suggest there may
be as many who DON’T YET know their differences and difficulties are due to autism as those
who have already been identified. When we hear the back stories of people diagnosed
in adulthood, a long record of unemployment, or an erratic working history is extremely
commonplace. Our difficulties in getting or holding down
a job, and the mental health problems that has led to have been the deciding factor in
leading many of us down the path of autism diagnosis.
Most autistic people are aware that we differ from the crowd from a young age.
Whilst no two autistic lives are the same, there are a number of common themes that crop
up when we talk about our younger lives. The feeling of being an alien abroad permeates
through autistic histories along with intense, prolonged anxiety. We are commonly on the
receiving end of countless accusations of bad behaviour from parents and educators alike. We’re told we’re lazy, antisocial and
unfocused or rude, uncommunicative and stubborn. These unkind descriptions only add to the
feelings of being an outsider and make the task of being understood feel even more daunting.
Diagnosis helps to put our differences in perspective, but it doesn’t change us.
We are still autistic people who see, interpret and interact with the world differently to
the neurotypical majority. When we enter the working world we can find
it even more hostile than the schools we left behind.
We are suddenly in competition with everyone around us, for recognition, for promotion
and even just to stay in employment. You may say that’s no different than anyone
else, and you’d be right, in part. The same pressures that make employment difficult
for us are frustrations for everyone who works. It’s no secret that mental health problems
that can be directly traced to employment issues are at an all time high with prescriptions
of anti-depressants ever on the rise. The biggest problem facing autistic people
both getting and staying in work is the increasing homogenisation of the work place – the emphasis
on standardisation and multi skilling. One of the defining characteristics of autism
is the spiky skills profile. If you plot someone’s skills – practical,
technical and personal on a graph, the majority would show a relatively straight
line skills being more or less evenly distributed.
Strengths and weaknesses are reflected in higher or lower positions on the chart.
When we do the same exercise for an autistic person we see a different shape emerge. T
here appear areas where we are particularly weak in some areas, yet very strong in others.
Rather than a comparatively even line we have deep dips where we are weak but high peaks
where we are strong. These form sharp angles on the graph hence
the term “spiky”. It’s not uncommon for people on the spectrum
to find that many of our weaknesses appear in the social area of the graph.
This is one of the biggest contributors to us failing at the first hurdle – the interview.
It’s often said that an interviewer’s decisions are made within the first few seconds
of meeting a candidate. The following conversation may have very little
bearing on the final decision. Someone who lacks neurotypical social skills
needed to engage with their interviewer is at a disadvantage before they’ve even sat
down. No matter how skilled or experienced we are
or whatever qualifications we have tucked under our belts,
we stand little chance against an inexperienced, underqualified person with a dazzling smile
and charming personality. Lets say we get past the interview and we
are offered the job. On our first day we’re out of our comfort
zone. Beyond the uncertainty that EVERYONE feels
starting a new job in an unfamiliar place, we often have to cope with an environment
which assaults our hypersensitive senses on countless levels.
Lights, noises, smells, chatter and more. It can be overwhelming on it’s own, but
then we are introduced to someone chosen to “show us the ropes” –
the buddy system as it�s known. This will almost invariably be someone who
is popular and well liked in the company. Again we must grit our teeth and ignore the
sensory assault, try and play along as if we care about all the workplace gossip.
We try to concentrate on learning the job. It sounds like an autistic nightmare, but
the trouble is only just beginning. The workplace is a dangerous place for autistic
people. Whether we work in an office, a warehouse,
in retail or a skilled trade, many of the same expectations and pressures exist that
we often find difficult, or even impossible to meet.
Gone are the days when it was sufficient to be just good at your job to ensure continued
employment – we now exist in the age of “the team”.
Increasingly teams are encouraged to work to middle-of-the-road guidelines, with scripts
and clearly defined methods which must be adhered to.
Even in jobs which don’t involve contact with the public, a certain level of social
skill is expected. Team building events, corporate training and social events intended to increase
“cohesion” within teams are often seen as essential and those who cannot enjoy or
participate in them segregated as being problems. Autistics with our spiky profiles cannot thrive
in these environments. When we don’t want to participate in group
activities we’re portrayed as anti-social or miserable. When we would prefer to read
the training notes or manual than gather in a room playing educational games, we’re
being stubborn or acting superior. When we become exceedingly competent at certain
aspects of our jobs, but fall behind in others we get told to stop showing off and admonished
for our weaknesses. Try as we might, far too many of us fail to
live up to these expectations. We communicate in a different way to the majority
so the tools design keep the workforce happy or in place don’t work so well on us.
We think independently of the crowd and we can be punished for it. We are held in place
by our inability to build social networks of useful contacts in an arena where WHO you
know has as much or MORE power than what you know.
We live in an age of standardisation and spin and businesses suffer for it.
Every company’s mission statement is a carbon copy of their competitors.
Customer service is an exercise in managing the expectations of the customer.
Outsourcing has become the norm. Quality of work and product has become an
expensive luxury. Environmental and welfare initiatives have
to prove their worth in fiscal terms before they are adopted.
Doing what is right, just BECAUSE it is right his no longer the norm.
Every company now strives to dominate the market and are judged not by their reputation
but by their market share. This affects everyone, not just autistic people,
but the ability of autistic people to fit in to such an environment is often way below
that of our neurotypical colleagues. Autistic people are well known for our tendency
to take things at face value – we often believe what we are told and extend that to
being very honest ourselves. When we are told that our employers value
innovation we believe it and yet often find our ideas unwelcome.
Companies publish statements championing honesty and dedication to getting things right, so
we go the extra mile to take ownership of problems, only to be told that we’ve overstretched
ourselves or trodden on someone else’s toes. So many of the expectations of modern employment
are tied up in UNSPOKEN rules and double standards we don’t stand a chance of keeping up.
There is no manual telling us what is truth and what is corporate double speak.
If we can’t fit in to working environments like these it will inevitably lead to mental
health problems. If we don’t find ourselves fired for our
misunderstandings we end up sacked because of our sick leave due to stress related illness
caused by the very people terminating our employment.
Then we’re back to square one again, facing the prospect of a further string of interviews
until someone finally sees past our social awkwardness and gives us another chance.
The primary reason for the chronic underemployment of autistic people is not because we’re
lazy, underqualified or have little to offer, it is because the same issues that frustrate
everyone in the modern working world affect us more severely.
It’s because we cannot hide our true feelings as well as the rest.
Because we’re unable to see the true expectations hidden behind the company mission statements
and customer service charters. We are built for a world that values honesty,
inspiration and good quality hard work, not one which is built on assumption, unwritten
rules and compliance. Now and again an employer will pop up in autistic
circles who sincerely wishes to open up opportunities to autistic and/or other neurodivergent people.
Inevitably they ask the question – “What kind of jobs are autistic people good at? What
do they want to do?” It’s the wrong question to ask.
Whilst it’s well known that there’s a higher prevalence of autistic people in the
technology sector and in academia, there is no specific industry or type of work which
is particularly suitable for autistic people. Amongst the autistic adults I know there are
great artists and crafters, managers and grafters. There are those who organise, those who manage
and those who work best on their own. Ideas people and developers, nurturers and carers.
The range of skills and strengths is as wide as it is for any slice of society. If we are
lucky enough to work in a field that matches the peaks of our spiky skills profile we can
excel. A better question might be “What can I do
to make my workplace more accepting and more encouraging to the talents of autistic people?”
The answer? Be willing to hire talented specialists, rather
than acceptable generalists. Be aware of and ready to accommodate sensory
needs. Understand that we can be loyal and dedicated
individuals without needing team building exercises or social obligations to reinforce
it. Offer different ways of learning rather than
shoe horning everyone into the same sessions. Value people for what they do best rather
than what they do they same as everyone else. Above all, when you speak, when you present,
in your internal memos and your public statements say what you mean, and mean what you say.
We’ll talk a little more about some of the accommodations that can improve working life
in later videos, but for now Thank you for watching.