New shocking data shows that only 22 per cent of autistic adults are in any kind of employment, which is the lowest employment rate of any disability category.
The figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the disability employment gap is still too wide, with around half of disabled people in work compared to over 80 per cent of non-disabled workers.
According to the British Medical Association, around 700 000 people are diagnosed with autism in the UK, but only one in five autistic adults manage to secure a job.
Autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with repetitive behaviours and social skills. It’s a lifelong condition which usually affects the way people see, hear and feel the world.
According to some experts, the lack of understanding around the condition is part of the reason why autistic people struggle to find employment.
“We’ve got a very two-dimensional view of autism. There is still not enough information out in the public domain regarding what autism really is,” says David Hull-Waters, London-based inclusion consultant. “It’s very much seen as something that can be a burden on an organisation rather than something which will enhance it.”
David argues that most of the autistic people want to work and are fit to do so, but have to “struggle to assimilate in a neurotypically structured world their whole life”.
He says: “ There is this fear of the unknown which can only be overcome by improving the understanding of autism within an organisation. Things need to change in terms of the entire procedures surrounding how we support those who are autistic in our communities.”
The interview process alone, could be the main stumbling block for adults on the spectrum. As a result, autistic adults are usually over-represented and overqualified for casual jobs but under-represented in senior positions.
According to David, small changes in the workplace could go a long way towards closing the autism employment gap.
He says: “Clarity should be in what is required by the candidate but also in what the candidate can expect at every stage of the application and the interview process. I would recommend photographs being provided of the interviewers and even of the building, perhaps even the interview room.
“If we will put in a wheelchair ramp for a wheelchair user, we should also then be putting in the appropriate strategies to support those who are neurodiverse, so that they can access the workplace and opportunities that others are able to access more easily. “
While all of the mentioned strategies could help close the employment gap, stereotypes and misconceptions about autism still exist and are the biggest struggle for those on the spectrum both on and off work.
Rosie King, 23, Ted Speaker and British autism advocate, shares an interesting analogy she read about autism.
She says: “If most people’s brains are Windows computers and other people’s are Macs, then an autistic person’s brain is like a very obscured brand you have never heard of, but it still works. It’s just wired differently.”
Doctors confirmed Rosie’s self-diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome when she was nine years old. She has two younger siblings who are severely affected by autism and are non-verbal. Rosie has devoted her time to breaking the stigma around the condition, asking the question “Why be normal?”.
“People do tend to lump autism in with mental health conditions. They think it is sort of a disorder or a condition that can be cured,” she adds. “It’s just a thing about somebody. It’s like having blue eyes or brown hair.”
Rosie says that many people are generally unaware of the condition and when they hear the word autism, they immediately picture a white man – “mostly it will be the Rain Man or Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory – very nerdy, no social skills, quite rude.”
She says: “People expect you to be really good at one thing, either that or they think you are really stupid. But no, I am just a person.”
The stereotypes and the constant struggle to find a job is what forces many on the spectrum down the self-employment road.
Mitchell Gledhill, 22, of Colchester, is the prime example for an autistic person laying the foundations of his own business. The extra time on his hands during lockdown helped him develop a text – based video game called Chaotic Survival. The game is very much COVID-inspired and requires players to successfully manage their hunger, thirst, and health to survive in the wilderness.
Mitchell says: “My long-term career plan is hopefully registering my game as a company. Enjoy life doing something I am passionate enough and enjoy. I created Chaotic Survival from the ground up, it’s an investment to hopefully set me up later in life just to do my own thing.”
Chaotic Survival turned out to be a great success, but Mitchell says he lacks the “confidence” and “means” to go down the self-employment route at this point. He is also a carer, who has struggled to find a job “numerous times”, because of the gap in understanding of autism.
He says: “I’ll get interviews, attend them the company will say I’m ideal for the role that I applied for (giving my background, evidence of work e.g Chaotic Survival and portfolio). Then never hear from them again after they specifically tell me they’d contact me back for further steps.”
Mitchell thinks that there has always been and probably will be stigma around hiring autistic people.
He adds: “Where people or employers don’t really know about autism, they’d probably just assume we’re all the same when in matter of a fact, everyone’s autism is different. “
For autistic people struggling to find a job, self-employment is always an option. But it shouldn’t be the only one given how risky a venture it could be.
Tackling stereotypes and prejudice against autistic people, will not only improve their mental health but also their employability. Attention to detail, precision, and consistency are some of the overlooked qualities people on the spectrum have and what’s worse than letting them go to waste?
If you want to learn more about autism, follow the link https://www.autism.org.uk.