Sunday 8 October 2017

Autism and employment. What does the future hold?

A question was posed to me recently about individuals with autism and employment.

Before I can get onto the details of employment, let's look at some statistics. Some very worrying statistics!

In 2015 Professor Cheryl Dissanayake from La Trobe Uuniversity (i) was part of a research team who were tracking the long term progress of an employment program for autistic individuals. At that particular point in time, more than half of working age Australians who were on the autism spectrum were unemployed.

In 2016 survey results were released by the National Autistic Society in the UK (ii) in regards to individuals with autism and their employment prospects. Now keep in mind that these results are from the UK, but they are rather shocking nonetheless.

Less than 16% of the survey participants were engaged in full time paid employment and another 16% of participants were engaged in part time paid employment. Overall, less than a third of survey participants had any kind of paid employment.  And it wasn't through a lack of trying - 77% of survey participants who were unemployed wanted to work but simply could not gain employment.

Even more worrying was that the managers that participated in the survey stated that they did not know how to support autistic individuals, they were worried about giving incorrect support to autistic employees and they also did not know where to go to obtain advice.

All of these statistics combined shows a very bleak future for autistic individuals.

Adults who are on the autism spectrum often have difficulty obtaining and keeping a job and these difficulties are usually unrelated to their job skills. 

Individuals who are on the autism spectrum are often intelligent and highly skilled, but this can come at a cost to their ability to navigate social interactions - their people skills. Individuals with autism may not make it all the way through an interview process due to their lack of ability to read and understand social cues and others non-verbal body language.

Imagine walking into an interview, knowing that you already struggle with social interactions and deciphering body language in the back of your mind, to have three people who are essentially going to decide your employment future, fire questions at you. This would potentially invoke your anxiety into action, you may enter into sensory overload and yet you are still required to verbally demonstrate that you have the skills that your perspective employer requires. Mmmmm, the chances that you will successfully demonstrate your skills are probably quite low.

Then if you were the successful candidate and were able to put a foot into a work place, you then have to be able to navigate the hidden curriculum that is in a workplace. 

The hidden curriculum is a way of describing all of the unique cultures and unspoken rules that every workplace contain. If you are able to recognise and adhere to all of these nuances of a workplace, your success within the workplace is greatly enhanced. If you are unable to recognise or adhere to the nuances, your days may be numbered.

Many individuals with autism have social and cognitive challenges that prevent them from fully understanding social interactions and this impacts on their ability to gain and keep employment.

But this is 2017 and the future is starting to look a little brighter!

There are companies who currently have programs in place in which they are actively seeking individuals with autism to employ as they are realising the benefits of employing people who are on the spectrum.

Individuals on the spectrum often have strong analytical and mathematical skills, they often have very high attention to detail skills and they may excel in repetitive tasks! Individuals with autism often have out-of-the-box thinking skills and they will stick with an issue that they discover until they are able to resolve the issue - this is an innovation that companies often look for.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) is one such company. In 2015, HP began actively recruiting autistic individuals with these skills for computer programming and testing software.

There are companies in the US that will only employ people with disabilities, autism included, due to their out-of-the-box-thinking and their attention to detail. These companies have realised the benefits, both for the company and for the individual, of employing people with conditions such as autism.

While autism is a life long condition, there appears to be less support for adults who are on the spectrum. Funding is thrust at young children via early intervention programs and other therapy services but once an individual finishes secondary school, the assistance seems to drop off.

So what does the future hold?

I am hoping that with the introduction and national roll out of the NDIS, that the employment opportunities for individuals with autism will increase as more and more adults will have access to resources, up-skilling programs and agencies that they may not have been able to access prior to being accepted into the NDIS.

Many autistic individuals have marketable skills and the only thing that stands in the way of them obtaining employment is the way that they are perceived by HR.

It is important for anyone, autism or not, that they be able to find work that is meaningful and fulfilling. Now that more and more companies are realising the potential benefits for themselves and individuals with autism, that people will be able to find work that taps into their strengths and talents. It is really is the start of a new frontier for autistic individuals.

One of the benefits of employing an autistic individual is that they probably aren't interested in the office politics or the office drama, they are simply there to do their job as, shock horror, that's what they enjoy doing. They just want to work. They are able to provide a new different perspective and a fresh outlook on what is important to the company that has employed them.

Now that companies are realising the overall benefits of employing people with disabilities, hopefully more supports will be put in place to assist managers to effectively support individuals within their company.

At times all it may take is for some reasonable accommodations to be made within the workplace to make the workplace feel a little less stressful for the autistic individual, and possibly for other employees as well. It is vital that these accommodations should be viewed as compromises rather than negatives - compromises such as a 5 minute break every hour so that the employee can get their mind back on track if needed or changing lights covers so that the sensory input is reduced. Changes such as these two would certainly benefit other employees.

In regards to my little superheroes? Well they are only 8 and 5 years of age but my hope for future employment is that they will find a job that makes them happy.

And that is all that matters!



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