Written in April 2022
Office for National Statistics (ONS) data from 2021 shows that just 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment. This doesn't include autistic people who volunteer (although if that autistic volunteer also has paid employment they're still counted in the 22%) but it does include those working full and part time, permanent, temporary or contract-based, and self-employed/business owners.
The employment gap for autistic people, even compared to other people living with disability/ies is vast, and it's incomprehensible to compare it to statistics for non-disabled allistic people – it's like comparing the number of fish that swim with the number of horses that swim.
There are a lot of reasons behind this, but the desire of autistic people to work is not one of them. One huge factor is the inaccessibility of job application processes, interview procedures and a complete dearth of support for autistic people in the workplace to retain employment. There are a lot of us who have worked, and who are capable of work, but who can't sustain employment in the long term because we're not accepted and accommodated in the workplace, and not supported to retain employment by advocating for the accommodations we need.
In the worst cases, we are denied reasonable adjustments and bullied for being different. These experiences make it very hard to even consider seeking employment in the future, and I know that is certainly where I have been for many years now (an issue compounded by recent experiences that I will not discuss here, as I did not address them with the workplace due to the mental health problems that arose from the experience).
Autistic people often have skills that are incredibly useful in the workplace. Attention to detail, ability to learn quickly and excel in certain areas, the ability to identify and solve problems and even the ability to deal effectively with people are all things that some autistic people can do really well – unfortunately the perception of autism doesn't always allow people to believe that autistic people are people with skills, knowledge and worth.
The accessibility of the job application and interview process can be a barrier to employment, as it is often the case that employers would prefer someone with fewer skills who seems a better social fit for the company and culture, than someone who is better suited to the actual task they're being paid for, but who may not want to go to after work drinks, or who'll sit alone at lunch. It makes no sense to me that a company would rather pay someone to be sociable than to do the best job, but that's neurotypicalism for you...
Even if we gain employment, we are often left with no support to retain it and are judged against the standards for neurotypicals. We may do a job better and faster than someone else, but if we don't say good morning to everyone every day we're excluded or mistreated. People think we are “stuck up” or that we “think [we're] better than everyone else” when the reality is that we find it all confusing and overwhelming to have to wear another mask and play these social games. We can identify and solve problems before they arise, but if that problem was technically within someone else's purview, we're chastised for “stepping on their toes” and faced with more mistreatment and even disciplinary action.
My employment future is very uncertain and at the moment I am hoping to be able to work to support autistic people in the workplace, as an advocate for those seeking and keeping employment, as someone who trains managers and colleagues in understanding and accepting autism, and as someone who works generally to change the perception of autistic people within society. I don't know what path this will take, but I do know that I have encountered much more gatekeeping than I ever expected.
As someone who has experienced the total lack of support for people like me I was shocked to be told that mentoring me to become an autistic advocate and/or trainer would not make “business sense”. It's hardly a saturated market and when the support services that purport to help us deny us the chance to help ourselves, I wonder where I keep finding the drive to carry on with this path. Then I remember that I'm out of options.
I have managed to find an organisation that will mentor me, but it's taken years to find the right support, having been passed from agency to charity to organisation and back again, or flat-out ignored. There's a waiting list, but that's the case for every place offering support to autistic people (surely a good business case for training more people to meet the demand, no?) and I think they are the right people to help me find my role.
I am also attending a local Understanding Autism even next week where I hope to make some connections and find out more about the local organisations I could work or volunteer with, as well as what training I'd need to complete to work in the capacities where I could actually make a difference. I'll keep on writing this blog, I'll keep on responding to requests for advice on Quora and in the groups I'm in on Facebook, and I'll keep striving to create some kind of life for myself.
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