How can employers support autistic people in the workplace?


6th March 2024

According to the charity Autistica, around one million people in the UK are autistic and only around 30% of these, who are of working age, are in employment. The Government is hoping that these figures will improve in the future. Its recently published review of autism and employment includes wide-ranging recommendations to support autistic people in the workplace.

Background

It was back in April 2023 that the Buckland review looked at the barriers preventing autistic people from entering the workplace and remaining in employment. Read our earlier article here.

The review’s recommendations were expected in September 2023 but were published on 28 February 2024 and received considerable publicity. There are 19 recommendations, explored under five specific themes, and we look at some of these below. First of all, it is helpful to consider the review’s definition of autism.

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that can occur at all levels of ability, across all social classes and ethnicities. It is a spectrum condition and often occurs in combination with other conditions, including ADHD, learning disability, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, speech and language difficulties and mental health conditions.

As mentioned above, only around 30% of working age autistic people are in employment, compared to 50% of all disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people. In addition, autistic people face the largest pay gap of all disability groups and autistic graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed after 15 months as non-disabled graduates.

Recommendations

The review identified many barriers to work for autistic people including poor preparation by employers, unfair hiring practices, unclear processes and outdated attitudes. Five specific themes were explored:

  • What initiatives can help to raise awareness, reduce stigma and capitalise on the productivity of autistic employees? 

The review recommends highlighting the availability and sources of advice for employers and publicising the benefits of employing autistic people. It also recommends promoting the  Autistica Neurodiversity Employers Index. This will help organisations to measure themselves against best practice and it will also provide guidance on fully inclusive processes,  procedures and premises. Further details can be obtained here www.autistica.org.uk.

  • What more could be done to prepare autistic people effectively for beginning or returning to a career?

Recommendations include identifying and promoting cross-industry autism employment support groups, including opportunities for volunteering and work shadowing. Promoting supported internships and apprenticeships are also recognised as a good way for autistic young people to gain work experience and skills. Finally, working with autism charities to ensure autistic people know about the support that can be provided by Access to Work.

  • How can employers adjust recruitment practices to meet the needs of autistic applicants?

As the review states, “Ignoring neurodiversity means businesses are overlooking and underutilising a substantial talent pool.

The Equality Act 2010 provides that employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to the interview process. However, many autistic people are unwilling to disclose their autism especially those who have negative experiences from previous interviews.

The traditional model of sending a cv against a generic job specification, being shortlisted, attending a face-to-face interview with strangers and being asked questions they have not seen before does not work well for autistic people. They have far more negative experiences of interviews, group tasks and psychometric tests. Accordingly, recruitment practices should be modernised. For instance, practical tests and assignments to be completed before interview would help autistic people demonstrate their suitability for the role. Job descriptions should also be looked at as they are often too long and off putting for many autistic people.

The review recommends that careers advisers in schools and colleges should all have a good understanding of autism, know how to support autistic people and are able to provide appropriate advice to those people looking for their first job or a career change.

Initiatives such as the Disability Confident scheme for employers and the Autistica Neurodiversity Employers Index will help autistic jobseekers to identify supportive organisations.

The review also recommends engaging with the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, advising on the benefits autistic candidates can bring to businesses, how to remove barriers to recruiting them, and how these improved processes can be applied to the recruitment of all candidates.

  • How can employers support autistic people already in their workforce?

One of the biggest barriers to autistic employees being appropriately supported in the workplace is a lack of understanding of autism amongst employers.

A survey on behalf of the National Autistic Society found that 34% of employers thought an autistic person would be unlikely to fit into their team, and 28% said that autistic people would be unlikely to be a team player. As the review says, “These are damaging stereotypes, which can impact the ability of autistic people to find employment. It can make them less likely to disclose their diagnosis to either a prospective or current employer, and so not get access to crucial reasonable adjustments.”

Bullying and harassment at work is experienced by 48% of autistic people according to the National Autistic Society (a report from 2016) and having the right workplace culture is crucial to identifying autistic employees who need support. The work environment is important too – hotdesking, bright lighting or high noise levels may contribute to sensory overload.

The review recommends identifying Disability Confident firms who have experience in successfully employing autistic people and achieving culture change. They can act as role models and guides for other Disability Confident organisations. It recommends accessing CIPD resources and its new guidance on Neuroinclusion at work was published on 20 February 2024.

It also recommends working with autism charities to produce “autism design guides” for a range of industries relating to the supportive design of premises, furnishings, equipment and procedures. Finally, the review recommends working with software suppliers and suppliers of adaptive technology to develop IT systems that meet autistic people’s needs.

  • How can employers encourage and support autistic staff to develop and progress their career?

The review identifies lack of confidence, poor self-advocacy, wrong assumptions being made about their career goals as some of the reasons why autistic employees could miss out on progression opportunities. In addition, there are few examples of senior personnel who are autistic and who are prepared to be open about their condition and this lack of role models impacts on autistic people’s confidence and aspirations.

The review recommends promoting employee resource groups and support networks as well as the use of mentors and buddies to support autistic staff in developing the skills they need to progress. Working with autism charities, the CIPD and other advice organisations to develop training will also be helpful.

Comment

Interestingly, the review expressly states that the recommendations have been selected to be practically achievable in a short to medium timeframe. According to the review, no new legislation is required nor large amounts of Government funding. Rather, the intention is mainly to change employer behaviour with the aim of significantly improving the autism employment rate over the next five years. There are already many resources available but the recommendations published in this high-profile review will be very helpful for those employers who want to reduce the barriers in recruiting, retaining and developing autistic employees.

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