With 71% of autistic people of working age unemployed. Phil Clisby speaks to the National Autistic Society about how companies can benefit from employing a more neurodiverse workforce.
With World Autism Acceptance Week upon us, the need for a better understanding of the condition among employers has never been more pertinent. The awareness event comes on the back of further damning evidence about the number of autistic people out of work.
In February, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its Outcomes for disabled people in the UK: 2021 report, which found that people with severe or specific learning difficulties, autism and mental illness had the lowest employment rates.
Recording employment rates of disabled people, by main impairment, aged 16 to 64 years in the UK for the year ending June 2021, the report found that just 29% of autistic people were in work, compared to 53.5% for disabled people overall and 81.6% for non-disabled.
While this is up seven percentage points from the previous year, it still highlights a shocking waste of talent.
Among the UK’s leading companies, the disability employment gap is even more prevalent. Last year’s Tortoise Disability 100 Report found that no FTSE 100 senior leaders had disclosed a disability of any kind.
One business leader who has embraced her autism diagnosis is Charlotte Valeur – a director at seven public companies and, until 2020, chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD). However, in an interview with The Independent when she was at the IoD, Valeur said she felt she wouldn’t get an FTSE 100 directorship because of it.
Reacting to the ONS findings, Tim Nicholls, Head of Policy, Public Affairs and Research Partnerships at the National Autistic Society, said: “New ONS data shows that just 29% of autistic people are in any type of work. This is a huge waste of talent. Not all autistic people are able to work. But many are desperate to find a job that reflects their talents and interests and have a huge amount to offer employers.”
He did see signs of encouragement, however. “In recent years, more and more businesses have been recognising and discussing the benefits of a diverse workforce, including seeing the potential of autistic people.
“Crucially, we’re also seeing more people in the public eye and with highly successful careers talking about their autism openly, including recently the actor Wentworth Miller, the author Holly Smale and the Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Nick Hine.
“Things are changing slowly. But barriers remain and one of the biggest ones for employers is not knowing how to support people and being worried about getting it wrong. Our message to them is that there is information and support out there.”
Under its Autism at Work Programme, NAS advocates the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce and supports employers to attract, recruit and retain autistic employees. One such recipient of this support is HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
Speaking to NAS, HMRC said: “Working closing with the National Autistic Society, they have been refining and tailoring the way we recruit to ensure we make ourselves accessible to everyone who has the skills we’re looking for… We gain the chance to find people with the skills we need who may otherwise have gone unnoticed.
“Their advice has included language reviews for job descriptions, delivery of workshops, advice on supporting autistic colleagues and a relationship manager who conducts frequent reviews.
“NAS has also given colleagues at HMRC confidence in working with an autistic team member and has helped to develop our understanding of their needs… Greater knowledge of autism in the workplace has proven its power to stimulate creativity, growth and sustainability.”
Nicholls added: “With often small changes to recruitment processes and the workplace, such as routinely circulating agendas before meetings, using plain English and clear planning, autistic people can be a real asset in any industry. It’s all about everyone having a basic understanding of autism and the employer working with each person to find out what works for them.
“The Government’s new five-year autism strategy for England commits to better support for autistic people looking for employment, and this is needed. But, to really address the autism employment gap, the government needs to properly fund the strategy beyond its first year.
“The Government is currently consulting on mandatory reporting on the number of disabled employees businesses have. We support this principle and believe it could help close the employment gap. Autistic people have so much to give; they just need a chance.”
For further information and advice, go to: www.autism.org.uk
World Autism Acceptance Week
This year’s World Autism Acceptance Week runs from 28 March to 3 April. Previously known as Autism Awareness Week, NAS – which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year – has changed the name of its annual event, following feedback from its supporters, as it seeks to move to the next level of understanding of the condition.
The week aims to draw attention to the 700,000 people living with autism in the UK to educate those unaware of the condition and help make the world friendlier to those affected by it.
“[The name change] reflects the fact that almost everyone has heard of autism now,” said Piers Wright, Head of PR and Social Media at NAS. “The problem is that too few people understand what it’s actually like to be autistic and accept autistic people for who they are.”
Wright said the society continues to hear from autistic people who routinely feel misunderstood, struggle without the right support, and feel judged and mocked.
“This is why World Autism Acceptance Week is so important,” he said. “It’s a chance to get society talking about autism and finding out more about what it’s like to be autistic.”
For more information, including resources for employers, go to www.autism.org.uk/WAAW