Why employers need to reconsider autism in the workplace

There aren’t any definitive or undisputed statistics that can tell us what percentage of the UK population has been identified with Autism.

It is broadly acknowledged that 700,000 people receive autism diagnoses in the UK every year, although this figure doesn’t take into consideration that there is likely to be a percentage of adults who have never explored neurodiverse traits or have gone down the route of Autism Spectrum Condition diagnoses for multiple, varied and very personal reasons.

If we accept this 700,000 number as a starting point, however, we are then also faced with the worrying statistic that only 16% of those with an Autism Spectrum Condition are believed to be in full time employment - whereas 81.5% of neurotypical people are in full time employment.

Employers must seek to better understand autism

This shocking unemployment picture, the stigmas that can sometimes be associated with autism, and the baseline lack of awareness and education around neurological difference often leads to misunderstanding around the capabilities and skills of individuals on the autism spectrum and their ability to contribute to workplaces, communities and societies.

The world has not been designed well for neurological and cognitive difference - and autistic individuals may be challenged or systematically worn down by everyday environments.

Autism Spectrum Condition is a developmental condition that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. It manifests in different ways from an individual to another.

Let’s celebrate neuro and cognitive diversity

Cognitive diversity and diversity of thought brings enormous benefit to workplaces and some more progressive employers are fast realising the competitive advantage that neurodiversity lends to their working cultures and bottom line.

Teams can pool their expertise, knowledge and skills together to reach solutions quicker, and in different ways. This avoids ‘groupthink’ and encourages innovation.

Skills shortages

Many people on the Autism Spectrum have significant strengths that makes them extremely valuable candidates. These may include above-average problem solving skills, sustained levels of concentration, pattern recognition and attention to detail, high levels of accuracy, reliability, loyalty and excellent long term memory giving certain autistic individuals the ability to thrive in a structured, well-organised work environment. These qualities are of course attributes that many employers need and appreciate.

Some individuals also have above-average spatial-reasoning skills and the ability to view an object or event from multiple perspectives. This enables them to quickly get the ‘gist’ surrounding specific concepts.

Others who fall under the umbrella of being neurodiverse have a strong ability to learn from experience and to reason well in dynamic settings – skills that can be valuable to all businesses, and particularly in STEM roles.

With so many industries facing skill shortages, if employers work better and smarter to collaborate with individuals on the Autism spectrum, they will be able to tap into a highly-valuable talent pool, which will benefit both the individual and the company.

Autism in the workplace works

Unfortunately, as some autistic individuals can face challenges with nuanced social skills, and slotting into neurotypical expectations and norms, they are often overlooked as candidates. Gordon, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, for example, was unable to find a role despite being highly-skilled.

“I have applied for jobs previously but have never been successful. I have found the interview process very stressful and I have even been turned down for jobs I have been over qualified for", he explained.

However, there is now a growing number of forward-thinking companies that are putting strategies in place to access neurodiverse talent. Auticon, for example, is an enterprise that exclusively employs autistic adults as consultants.

Through a partnership with Alexander Mann Solutions, the firm helped Gordon find his first IT role with RBS. “Auticon focused on looking at the skills I had rather than an interview,” he said.

The company is not alone in seeing the benefits of engaging with neurodiverse talent, with EY, GCHQ and Microsoft all exploring ways to best tap into this rich talent pool.

The recruitment process must evolve to be fit for neurodiverse talent like Gordon. For too long, businesses have approached hiring and working with a one-size-fits-all formula, rather than creating workplaces that are made for people to thrive in as individuals.

Just like everybody else, autistic people have unique personalities and strengths. This must be embraced to create a truly diverse and complete workforce which includes every person.

Paul Modley is director of talent acquisition and diversity and inclusion at Alexander Mann Solutions