Autism Awareness & Inclusion in the Workplace

As part of National Autism Awareness Week 2021, Find Your Flex is here to help raise awareness. To assist to cultivate much needed change within the workplace in regards to autistic people.

COVID-19 has given pause for much thought over the last year. In many ways the pandemic has given the opportunity to make a fresh start. It is impossible to deny that some societal practices continued until they were forced to stop. Now that we are in position to move forward, certain mindsets must be left behind. Especially the inclusion of neurodiversity in the workplace.

Autism Awareness: Employer Inclusivity

When it comes to neurodiverse people, employers in the UK are not accommodating or inclusive enough. That seems like a harsh blanket statement. Sadly, there is concrete evidence to back this up. Only 22% of autistic adults are employed in the UK as of 2020. In a modern society claiming to be forward-thinking, diversified and inclusive, these statistics are unacceptable.

Employers need to be making stronger commitments to inclusive cultures. The benefits are twofold. Firstly, talented people are able to enter the workforce, utilise their skills and grow. Secondly employers and organisations reap the benefits of a more creative and innovative team. It is baffling that there are not more neurodiverse people in the workplace. They are a massive pool of exceptional talent and missed opportunities.

Be Aware of what Autistic People bring to the table

Employers need to be aware of what they are potentially missing out on. There are some exceptionally talented people looking for work. Being neurodiverse shouldn’t be a factor in them not finding employment. Autistic people may need to work in a different way than what employers are used to. All it requires is an understanding employer and an open conversation about how they work best.

The National Autistic Society, interviewed Jamie Knight; Senior Research Engineer at the BBC. Jamie has a number of important roles, including developing software, conduct tech maintenance and ensuring their apps and services are running properly. This is just one example of how much neurodiverse people can bring to the table at a senior level. This is for one of the most globally recognised organisations; the BBC. This is definitely an indicator for more organisations to follow this example and really take an internal look at their recruitment process.

Autism Awareness: Perceiving the World around us

The first aspect of autism awareness employers need to recognise is that they need to rid themselves of existing mindsets. Neurodiverse people perceive the world differently than people who are not neurodiverse. This is the mindset employers and society in general must adopt if they haven’t already. For example; a faulty lightbulb in a lit room can be slightly annoying but easy to ignore for some people. Yet for an autistic person this can be something potentially debilitating.

In NAS’s interview with Jamie Knight, he sums up perfectly how employers and society in general should view neurodiverse people:

“Look, its not that I’m defective, it’s that the environment is disabling me. So if I start modifying the environment, it will stop disabling me. I’ll still remain impaired … But I can stop it from having a negative impact on my life.”

And this is key when employing neurodiverse people. Make small changes to the workplace environment, interactions and overall processes. This will accommodate someone who can prove to be an invaluable asset. Making this less of an inconvenience and more of investment. General acceptance and adapting to people is an easy part of creating a more inclusive environment. Jaimie has Lion with him at all times as he says he helps to keep him happy. And Lion even acts as an indicator for how Jaimie is feeling. When neurodiverse people are comfortable in their environment they can thrive as well as anyone else. Any employer can see this as a positive thing which they can prosper from.

Recruitment Process: Inclusivity & Accommodation

Accommodating neurodiverse people does not start once they are in the job. It needs to start at the beginning of the recruitment process. Job descriptions can sometimes ask for too much. Listing a number unnecessary requirements as “essential” to the job, when in practice they are not. This isn’t just an issue that concerns neurodiverse people, but it does present a greater barrier for them more so than others.

Employers casually include “essential requirements” in job descriptions without thinking much of it. Such as: ‘excellent communication skills’ or ‘must work well in a team’. These skills can often be included in job descriptions where the employee would be mostly working independently or would not need to interact much with others to do the job well. If this is the case, why are these skills part of the essential criteria? An autistic person will see this and automatically move on as they may not have these skills, yet they could have been exceptional in that role. However, sometimes their exceptional abilities can get falsely interpreted. This is where the myth surrounding splinter skills autism should be noted. Splinter skill is a term used for people on the spectrum who do well in certain domains or areas. That is, they could be good at art or playing piano, which might seem amazing. However, it is very rare and they still face challenges in their social life. So, recruiters should keep in mind that instead of looking for the “perfect” candidate, they should be searching for the right candidate. Consider what really is essential and what is not.

The same is true for the interview process. Candidate assessments in interviews can include asking vague, open ended questions and reading body language. An autistic person should not be assessed in this way as it is unfair; they perceive things differently and may not perform well under this kind of assessment. A better assessment of their performance would be to give them a trial in the appropriate role and asses their performance this way. Employers need to adopt these changes in practice if they are aiming to create a more diverse and inclusive environment.

Why Flexible Working for Neurodiverse People is Key

Flexible working should be available for everyone, yet it is a key element of working life for neurodiverse people. For an autistic person, aspects in and out of the workplace can derail them for the rest of the day. And as previously stated; neurodiverse people perceive things differently and therefore have to cope with this in a different way. Therefore it is completely unfair, inappropriate and ignorant to expect neurodiverse people to operate on fixed shifts all the time with no room for compromise.

This not only shows a total lack of autism awareness but is a totally regressive way of working. If companies maintain this approach they are making no effort to facilitate a diverse and inclusive working environment. Now it is true that some neurodiverse people require structure and benefit from having fixed shifts. That is fine, flexible working does not effect that. It simply means the company can work around neurodiverse employees if their environment has left them incapable of operating under their normal hours for whatever reason. This is why flexible working is an essential requirement for neurodiverse people which all organisations should adopt. They outcome can only be positive.

Autism Awareness: Improve Lives

Like anyone else, neurodiverse people may want a certain level of independence, sense of achievement and purpose. For most adults, these aspects of life are defined by their careers. We achieve independence through the money we make from our job to become self reliant. We often strive for achievements within our job and measure our success with these. Often our career is literally the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning, giving our lives structure and purpose. Neurodiverse people deserve to have the opportunity for these basic fundamental parts of life that everyone is entitled to.

Employers are the ones with the ability to make this happen. This can be done simply by creating a more inclusive and diverse environment. It can not be understated the impact this can have on the life of a neurodiverse person. All too often the base need they have is structure and nothing provides this more than a career which will also grant them a certain level of independence. This is the way forward in a post-COVID world, employers and society need to embrace this sooner rather than later.

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