Helping people with autism to thrive in the workplace

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I have been working with job seekers with autism for over 10 years and have experience of family and friends with autistic spectrum conditions and also with ADHD. I really admire many of the qualities of people on the spectrum, but also understand some of their challenges that can hold them back. Along with a colleague of mine with aspergers, we were invited to speak at a conference at Kingston University recently to talk about how employment works for people with autism.

They say if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism! Autism is a very broad spectrum and can range from someone with little communication to graduates with first class degrees. If you think about work as a range – from group supported volunteering to full time paid work – the majority of people with an autistic spectrum condition can work or at least contribute to their local communities, it is just a matter of what support is needed.

Surrey Choices EmployAbility currently work with over 1,000 people across Surrey – over 36% have autistic spectrum disorders. I have been leading the team for over 10 years and also sit on the Surrey Autism Partnership Board, chairing the Employment subgroup.

Many older adults we work with have not been diagnosed as a child, but are likely to have a history of issues around how they interact or communicate and this may lead to getting a late adult diagnosis. In some cases they may have just always felt they did not quite fit in. After receiving a diagnosis it can make it much easier for them and their families to understand why they have a history of failed jobs and/or relationships as they have not had the support they need to help them succeed.

It has been suggested that as a society we should train the wider workforce so they are more aware of people on the autism spectrum. Although this makes a lot of sense it is not always easy. For example, you can tell an employer that people with autism may have difficulties with eye contact and not like to be touched, only to present them on work experience with an over chatty person who invades their personal space! It is clear that training employers about autism can present some challenges and ideally will be personalised around the person working to explain their own particular support needs to help them shine.

Why employ someone with autism?

Why would you not want an employee who was always honest, with a strong integrity and work ethic who, if given clear instructions, will be a reliable worker and will show loyalty? We support employees who enjoy their work and the structure it gives their day so much that we have to persuade them to try to take holidays!

Although it will vary amongst different people, some of the skills people with autism may display include attention to detail, loyalty, focus, amazing memory and retention. Most people will not only be honest, but incapable of telling lies and this means they give honest feedback and its easy to trust them in their roles.

Only 16 % of people with autism work, but over 77 % of unemployed working age adults with autism say they would like to work. Employers are also keen to increase the number of people with autism in their workplace but are worried they will get it wrong and not be able to provide the right support. Most people with autism will have some level of anxiety around work or aspects such as meeting new people or performing in a new situation. Supported employment services like Surrey Choices EmployAbility can help to make it work for everyone.

Christina Earl

Acting Operations Director

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