Like many parents, I worry about my children’s future. Times are difficult and jobs are scarce but for the autistic population they face even greater challenges in securing employment. Currently only about 15% of adults on the autism spectrum are in paid employment which is a shockingly low figure and an obvious waste of the talents of those with autism. However, I found it interesting to hear about the work of Autism Works, a social enterprise that aims to improve the employment prospects for those on the autism spectrum. After hearing about the work being done by this organisation, I was keen to share with you what I had found. I am therefore delighted that Chris Mitchell from Autism Works has taken time out to explain to us how his organisation works and his hopes for a better future for those on the spectrum. Over to you Chris.
One of the biggest developments that has occurred in relation to Asperger’s Syndrome since I received diagnosed back in 1998, is the increase of diagnosis of the condition. Much of this has largely been down to increased awareness in schools and better access to
diagnosis when young. Though many children and young people with Asperger’s
Syndrome are now receiving adequate to good support while in education, the biggest worry that many parents have is, when their child leaves the education system, what comes next?
Despite often leaving the education system (in both special and mainstream), having had good support, too often there is little or nothing for individuals to move onto employment-wise. The National Audit Office estimates that 85 per cent of an estimated 500,000 adults
with an autism diagnosis are not in employment, and of the 15 per cent who are in paid employment, many are under-employed in jobs that do not match their skills and qualifications. However, at Autism Works, we are looking to make a significant
contribution towards changing this.
Based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom, Autism Works is a social enterprise that provides sustainable employment to people on the autistic spectrum in software testing. The model is based on the successful Specialisterne in Denmark and Aspiritech in the United States. After working in the IT industry for 25 years, Managing Director Peter
Macdonald had a spell working with students at Education and Services for People with Autism (ESPA) and witnessed that many students were graduating with good skills, qualifications and successful work placement but instead of moving on into careers many found themselves going back to their bedrooms. After seeing a film about Specialisterne, Peter was inspired to recreate the model in the UK as Autism Works.
Though the statistics of adults with autism make depressing reading, there are reasons for these figures which cannot be ignored for much longer. Many adults with autism are employable and willing to work, but have difficulties with inflexible recruitment procedures, particularly job interviews, where they often struggle with open or ambiguous
questions. Just as challenging as obtaining employment for many adults with autism though is maintaining employment, not necessarily through inability to perform a job, but more so with the social skills needed to ‘survive’ in the workplace.
As Operational Manager, one of my roles at Autism Works is to develop and implement fairer recruitment procedures to help ‘capture’ talent on the autistic spectrum into a field where the skills and strengths related to ASC become an asset rather than being seen as
impairments. Some of these traits that are common with the condition include strong attention to detail, persistence, excellent rote memory and general reliability. A problem that many people on the autistic spectrum experience with conventional recruitment procedures is open/abstract questions in the application and interview stages, which can be open to literal interpretation. For instance, one of our Test Analysts, who had been turned down at numerous job interviews said that a particular question he was often asked was ‘what sets you apart from the other candidates as to why you are the best person for the job?’ he was unsure how to answer it because he hadn’t seen or met the other candidates!
Once in employment, we try to be as flexible as we can towards meeting individual needs, including sensory issues. Quite often, just small adjustments can make huge differences e.g. if an employee has difficulties handling busy rush hour traffic, start and finish
times can be altered to avoid this.
To reverse the current statistics of adults on the autistic spectrum, or indeed make any kind of significant ‘dent’ in them, it is going to take time, but if start by gradually becoming more flexible with employment practices, including recruitment, we can make a
difference for both the current and future generations. This is critical to ensure that the many young people currently obtaining ASC diagnosis when young have something once they move on from education. Hopefully, employers across all sectors will eventually take on board practices developed by Autism Works so as to capture talent on the autistic spectrum to a wide range of roles, not just in software testing. The strengths, skills and personal qualities that Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome present can be adapted to many other professions and translate to skills that will be invaluable to many employers. To gain an idea of the range of suitable jobs for people with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, see Temple Grandin’s article Choosing the Right Job
Autism Works can provide training to employers on how to make adjustments for
employees with ASC, and can be contacted via the company website – www.autismworks.co.uk
Chris Mitchell’s personal website is www.chrismitchell.org.uk
You also may be interested to learn that Chris is also taking on a double challenge in aid of Daisy Chain, an autism charity based in Stockton-on-Tees that works with children and young people with autism and their families. The first part of his challenge involves completing the Bupa Great North Run in September this year and the second part involves taking on Kilimanjaro in 2013. You can find out more about this at Chris’s sponsorship page at http://www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR