The challenges people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face in the workplace, and how organisations can improve their approach.
9 minute read
Extract from an article originally published in HR Magazine
It is estimated that there are more than half a million people on the autism spectrum in the UK; of these more than 85% are believed to be unemployed or severely under-employed. Diagnosis is increasing rapidly in line with greater awareness and acceptance of the condition, and there is also a much greater awareness of the employment issue at government level. In 2010 the UK government published its first strategy for adults with autism in England. This is significant for both recruitment and for employers recognising that some existing staff may well start disclosing their condition.
In research undertaken at Cranfield University School of Management, into the ways the HR community and businesses can learn to better handle candidates and employees on the autism spectrum, I’ve found that many organisations are ill-prepared for this rise in awareness. But there are some emerging examples of good practice. And in responding to this challenge we will improve our approach to employee engagement across the organisation.
The HR community has spent the last few decades advocating the message that diversity is crucial in business, that fairness and morality require us to design every process and policy to treat candidates and employees equally (with reasonable adjustments wherever practical), and that business benefits will follow from this approach.
In a world with growing skills gaps, and a desire for employees with creativity and potential to innovate, it is even more critical that these policies and processes enable people who meet these criteria to join and succeed in organisations. And yet the evidence is that we are doing the exact opposite with a key talent group that is severely underrepresented in the current workforce. Worse still, some of these people are already in our businesses and we are treating them poorly, and under-exploiting their capabilities, because HR and line managers don’t realise what is happening. Education and training is urgently required.
Autism is defined as a lifelong condition that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how a person makes sense of the world around them. It is known as a spectrum condition because of the range of difficulties that affect people. And the way they present varies. Asperger’s Syndrome, for example, is a form of autism where people have typically fewer difficulties with speaking, which only serves to mask their actual communication challenges.
For individuals with ASD finding work isn’t just about employment, it is a crucial element of achieving social inclusion – providing personal status and identity that is often missing from their lives. The unemployment rate for ASD individuals is extraordinarily high, up to 80%, according to the organisation Autism Speaks. The challenges in finding work start with not receiving adequate careers guidance while in education. Then the interview process is almost always conducted in a way that maximises difficulties for ASD individuals, many of whom may be reluctant to declare a condition that they perceive might prejudice their chances.
Once in the workforce, depending on disclosure, many ASD adults talk about the stigma they experience, and the extra stress from being labelled as autistic. Furthermore, many people with autism also experience some form of sensory sensitivity or under-sensitivity, for example to sounds, touch, taste, smells, light or colours, which can be difficult for them to talk about and not all employers understand this range of requirements. People with autism often prefer to have a fixed routine, and find change incredibly difficult to cope with.
Ian Iceton has been HRD at a number of prominent organisations over the past 20 years (Volkswagen Group UK, Skanska, Network Rail, and currently River & Mercantile Group). He has featured on HR magazine’s HR Most Influential sector list for the last two years. Iceton is looking to work with HR functions and ASD adults to further explore the opportunities to make progress. You can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org