Autism and the Employment Maze
Four years ago, at the age of 40, I was diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum.
I had spent my whole life feeling like I didn’t fit in to society. As a kid, I was quite shy and socially awkward, so I would often spend the majority of my time on my own with my head in a book.
I was always the “odd one out” in groups and I struggled to cope when there were changes to any routine.
When I finally got confirmation of my Autism diagnosis, I cried with relief.
I felt such a mixture of emotions.
A piece of the puzzle that had been missing for so long had been found and I could now fully understand who I was as a person.
While the diagnosis helped me embrace who I am, it hasn’t helped with my employment status (or lack thereof).
There is very little support for adults with autism to navigate this new world, especially if, like me, you are diagnosed late in life.
When one in three are unemployed
I’m not alone. One in 70 people in Australia are on the Autism spectrum and in 2017, the unemployment rate for people in Australia with Autism is 31.6 per cent, almost six times the general unemployment rate.
My experience of utilising the current employment support system for people with a disability isn’t great.
I have to date been with six different Disability Employment Services (DES) providers, and I felt each one lacked the knowledge and training to best support me and my situation.
They did not fully understand the complexities around living with Autism and what support autistic people need, from both their DES provider when looking for work and from their employer.
Every DES provider has suggested reverse marketing, where my consultant and I approach multiple companies to see if they are looking for potential employees.
They have all then proceeded to introduce me as:
“Hi, this is Nick and he has Autism. Do you have any job positions that he can apply for?”
If I’m capable of doing a job, why does it matter if I have Autism? This approach scares potential employers away by highlighting my disability instead of my abilities.
I find it discriminative and soul destroying, as there is always a negative response from the employer.
Overwhelming work and the dreaded interview
Added to this is the frustration of being put forward for jobs that are totally unsuitable.
I was recently put forward for a job at Perth Airport as a retail assistant in a busy newsagency.
But the employment agency failed to consider the effect of the sensory overload that working in an airport could cause a person with Autism.
The constant and overwhelming noise from announcements, a multitude of different smells, bright lights, people rushing around and big crowds all combined would make me feel very anxious, and I couldn’t function properly in that role.
Then there is the dreaded job interview. This can really increase my anxiety and panic levels.
One of the Autistic traits I have is that I struggle making eye contact, as it can make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. It’s not great if you are trying to make a good first impression.
Then I have to consider when is the right time to tell the employer that I have autism. I don’t want my disability to define me, but I also don’t want to be discriminated against because of it.
Like many Autistic people, I bring many attributes that can really benefit a company or organisation.
I’m reliable and trustworthy, I have a great attention to detail and am highly focused, which means I work hard on a project until it is completed without getting easily distracted.
But I don’t get past the interview, so I don’t get the chance to show off my strengths.
A huge untapped resource
So, what could be done better?
People with autism offer a huge amount of untapped potential for employers and much can be done to improve the current system.
The main piece of advice I could offer to any DES agency is to listen.
I have explained to my job consultant the industries I feel are best suited to me. But I often end up being directed to jobs that aren’t attainable or are situated in unsuitable environments.
I also think job interviews have limited value in telling you if someone is right for a job.
The traditional job interview only really tells you, in a very short timeframe, about someone’s capacity to communicate in what is often a very stressful environment.
It is not conducive for those who may not have the “soft skills” but have significant practical skills to offer in other areas.
Instead, work trials and practical assessments are great examples of ways to assess autistic applicants, giving people the chance to show off their skill sets in a much less stressful environment.
For organisations and employers, more training on Autism to all staff so they understand the practicalities of working with Autistic people is a great investment in a diverse and inclusive workplace environment.
For the Autistic employee, clear instructions and having tasks split into manageable chunks can be really helpful.
Options for training and coaching on how to interact in a working environment helps build confidence and improve social interaction — an area of difficulty for many people with autism.
Lastly, my message to employers is this: keep an open mind, see past the disability and embrace the diversity and immense potential that is in front of you.