Louise's experience of navigating employment as an autistic person
As an autistic person, my journey through employment has been exceptionally difficult to navigate, and I am certainly not alone in this.
By Louise Chandler
Only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment. This is the lowest employment rate of any disability category and this is not for lack of wanting employment, with 77% of autistic people wanting to be employed. Autistic people have a lot of skills and strengths to bring to the workplace, whether that be problem solving skills, attention to detail, logic, memory or the ability to follow routines meticulously. Hiring autistic people helps to bring diversity to the workforce, bring different perspectives to problems and create a culture of learning amongst employees.
There are many different reasons why workplaces can be overwhelming for autistic people. There are often unwritten social rules in the workplace which can be difficult to navigate. For example, in some offices everyone takes turns to make a cup of tea or coffee for each other and although this rule might be automatic to some, for autistic people it can be really difficult to realise that this is an unspoken rule. Similarly, autistic people might also not realise that it is an expected part of the workplace that you say hello and goodbye to everyone when you arrive and leave the office. Navigating the social world as an autistic person in a neurotypical world can be challenging.
Autistic people can also struggle to cope with sensory stimuli such as the smell of cleaning products or strong perfumes or the noise from computers or footsteps from people walking up and down on the floor above. These noises, smells and sensory experiences are often amplified when you are autistic. It can feel like the entire world is caving in when our senses get overwhelmed.
In my own experiences, I really struggled working as a waitress in a cafe. Unfortunately, I only managed to work there for a few weeks before I had to leave as I was really struggling to do what I needed to and I was extremely anxious. I struggled with the sensory overload of the many different layers of noise whilst working, as well as the many different instructions I had to remember in a sequence. I found the small talk really hard too and didn’t necessarily know when it was my turn to speak or what to ask the other person. All of these things really made me feel anxious. I wish that I had the adjustments I needed in this role to help me thrive.
In terms of being autistic, I also faced ableism in education. My school failed to accommodate my needs and I had to fight hard for the adjustments that I needed. Autism was hardly ever discussed in a positive light and myths about autism were perpetuated in the school environment. Schools don’t always adequately prepare students for the outside world and I felt this particularly strongly as an autistic person. I wish that I had the chance to learn how to self advocate for my needs in the workplace, the chance to nurture my individual skills and the opportunity to practice presenting these skills at an interview. I would definitely encourage schools to talk about autism in a positive way this autism awareness month and perhaps think about how schools can support students, especially those who experience marginalisation, to prepare for the workplace.
There are many different things that employers can do to support and attract autistic people to the workplace. Here are some tips:
- Advertise the role inclusively – From the process of advertising the role, there are steps that you can take to make this process more inclusive. In the advertisement, let applicants know that you have processes in place to support disabled people. Reassure applicants that they can disclose a disability and ask for reasonable adjustments, if they need them. It is also worth thinking about the skills that you list on the advertisement and which skills are really vital to the role and which are skills which would be ‘nice to have’ but are not essential.
- Make adjustments to the interview process. This might involve giving applicants a list of the interview questions in advance so that the interview feels less unpredictable and the candidate has a chance to process the questions. In an interview with an autistic person, you may need to be prepared to re-word the questions.
- All employers under The Equality Act have the duty to make reasonable adjustments for autistic employers. These can make a really big difference to autistic people in the workplace.The reasonable adjustments needed will depend on the needs of the individual autistic person but might include using noise cancelling headphones, having a schedule with advanced warning of any changes, having a mentor to support in the workplace and having written, clear instructions.
Autistic people deserve to be accommodated, to know that we are capable of success and be given the chance to bring our skills and talents to the workplace.