As part of National Inclusion week, I want to talk about my employment experiences as an autistic person. In yesterday’s blog I touched upon leaving school at 16 with no hopes and no opportunities for what the future might bring. I was always told at school if you don’t work hard and go to college or university you will never amount to anything and you will end up in a dead-end job as a binman. Yet, when I left school at 16, with little in the way of qualifications or for that matter expectations, I thought that the world of employment would be more geared to supporting my needs and requirements.
This is my story.
When I did leave school at 16, I did go to college for a year until I was 17. However, after a year at college I felt that it was the right time to take my first steps out into the world of employment. I became an apprentice for a local council near where I lived. Yet, I quickly realised that it was a job that didn’t interest me or that I was suited to. I persisted in doing the role for around two months, completely unaware that no reasonable adjustments or provisions had been made to support me in the role. Despite the fact that I found the role mundane, I persisted with it as I thought it would be a natural steppingstone to a career in the public sector. I was repeatedly told that my performance in the role wasn’t a problem and that as an apprentice, the expectation level in the beginning would be relatively low. I was told that the local council had employed people with autism in the workplace before so knew how to support me. Yet, I was new to the workplace and had no understanding of office politics and the unwritten and unspoken social rules that govern our workplaces. Eventually, the council decided with little notice to remove me from the role, this was despite the fact that assurances had been made to me that my employment with the council was secure and that they would look to frequently update the support they were offering me in the workplace.
Too often organisations make the assumption that a person with autism cannot fulfil a role in the way they are expected too because there autism prevents them from doing so. In reality as with any job it comes down to the simple factors of “right person” “right role”. Evidence from the National Autistic Society estimates that around 60% of organisations either don’t implement reasonable adjustments for autistic employees or fail to implement appropriate reasonable adjustments for those with autism in the workplace. Often the common reasons cited are a lack of knowledge and understanding of autism which can often end up in an autistic employee been terminated from employment as a consequence.
After leaving that role, I guess I did a lot of soul-searching. I felt like I was a failure and that I wouldn’t amount too anything and that it was my own fault for taking so-called dead-end roles. The next role I took was a fulltime sales assistant for a DIY company who on the surface seemed to understand that I was autistic and would need extra support in the workplace. I recall one of the managers at the store having a relative who was autistic so it felt like an inclusive workplace that would support and develop me over time. In reality, there was an expectation that all employees were expected to be fully proficient and multiskilled from day one. When the manager whose relative was autistic was running the store, I felt that I was able to learn at a pace suitable to my needs and requirements. However, when this particular manager wasn’t in the other managers would be constantly belittling and patronising me for being slow and in there eyes inefficient when dealing with customers instore. This was despite them having being told by the disability charity that were supporting me at the time that I would need reasonable adjustments and support during my working day. Eventually after two months of working for them they decided to dismiss me on the grounds that I was incapable of doing the job. This was despite the fact that they had never implemented any of the reasonable adjustments recommended by the disability charity nor had ever carried out any performance reviews with me during the course of my employment with them. The line manager who was supposed to “understand” autism said that all I would ever amount to was warehouse work if I was lucky.
Too often there is a perception among organisations that autistic people are just idiosyncratic, obstructive, don’t like change and aren’t team players. The very things that make organisations shun wanting to employ people with autism in their workplaces. When only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in fulltime employment and globally according to research from Microsoft around 80% of people with autism are unemployed sadly tells its own story. Yet, the clue is in the name “reasonable adjustments” and that actually if that person with autism can do the job to the same standard as a neurotypical person why shouldn’t they be given an opportunity to learn and develop within a supportive and encouraging environment.
After, the chastening experience working for the DIY Company, I then went to work in IT Logistics which was a really interesting and fulfilling role. However, as an organisation most of the colleagues and managers at that time had little or no awareness of autism and how to support autistic employees in their workplace. Much like my experience of working for the DIY store a couple of my immediate managers had a reasonable knowledge of autism in the workplace. However, these managers were rarely in the office and the colleagues that were there to “supposedly support me” had little time for wanting to support an autistic employee who didn’t seem to meet deadlines or understand office politics to be seen as a valuable member of the team. Alas, with my other experiences, my immediate line manager reluctantly relieved me of my position. Yet, in a way it was a relief to have been removed from this role as the very long hours for very little money wasn’t worth the hassle of being just a junior administrator for a company who didn’t seem willing or able to support autistic employees in their organisation.
The biggest problem I believe reflecting upon it now, is that back then the Equality Act didn’t exist. Yes, there was the Disability Discrimination Act, but equality, diversity and inclusion wasn’t something that many organisations deemed to be a priority in their workplace. The Disability Discrimination Act merely required organisations to not discriminate on the grounds of disability. Yet, the legislation has always felt more geared at those with a physical disability than an invisible one. It is only in the last 8-10 years that we have started to gain a better understanding of what autism is and what it means to be neurologically different.
I guess after having lost three jobs, I felt that I was a failure and that I wouldn’t amount to anything. It would be another year before I would go back into the world of employment. This time my employment experience was substantially better and this employer helped make me into the person I am today. I worked for this brilliant employer for nearly ten years and yes my experiences since leaving them have been similar to my earlier experiences. Yet, weirdly those negative experiences have only fuelled a tenacity and a determination in me to change the world for the better for autistic people just like me who rightly deserve opportunities that so often they have been denied. We need to start asking autistic people what do they want out of employment instead of making our assumptions that we somehow know better. Only by listening to the voices of autistic people and understanding the world from there perspectives will we actually gain the skills and knowledge necessary to support and develop future generations of autistic talent in the workplace. I personally will not rest until the world is a better & more equitable place for those with autism.