Work & Education

Autism: overcoming barriers to work for people on the autistic spectrum

Maxwell Dean, who has autism, explains the challenges people with autism face when applying for jobs, going for interviews, and in the workplace. But alongside it, he also highlights the benefits of hiring someone with autism, and how a diverse workplace can be a better workplace.

My name is Maxwell and I turned 27 this September. I was only diagnosed with high-functioning autism in July last year.

Among my interests is a passion for films, politics and social issues. My film tastes can be quite diverse. One minute I can be revisiting my childhood with The Lion King, and the next, terrifying myself with my favourite zombie film, Day of The Dead (1985).

I am also extremely passionate about equality and empowering others, which I want to do by sharing my own experiences. I firmly believe that everyone should be able to achieve their potential. This includes those with autism or any disability.

Maxwell Dean with his dog

The impact of autism

The biggest impact my autism has, day-to-day, is my anxiety and feeling of self-worth. This can strike at any time, either during the day or night. Sometimes I find myself awake at night, with thoughts racing through my head about what I have done in the past and how I could have done things differently.

I also often find it difficult not to compare myself to others on social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook. I know that these sites only offer a snapshot of people’s lives. But, as I am sure many would agree, it can be hard to switch off sometimes.

Trying to get a job

My worrying includes concerns about when I will be able to find my next job. I finished my last job as Campaigns Assistant at the National Union of Students in July 2016, and haven’t been able to work since.

I’ve applied for many jobs and had a lot of interviews. But nothing has been successful. The initial applications aren’t an obstacle for me because of my writing experience. However, the challenge is coming across confidently during the actual interview, a problem that, I’m sure, affects a lot of people with autism.

According to the latest research from the National Autistic Society, only 17% of autistic adults are in full-time employment. This is compared to 47% of disabled people.

Only 17% of people with autism are in full-time employment

Barriers to employment if you’re autistic

An essential element of any successful interview inevitably involves a candidate’s social skills and the confidence to maintain a flowing conversation. In an anxious and pressurised situation, however, those on the autistic spectrum can find this extremely challenging.

Unsuccessful interviews have a massive knock-on effect for my self-esteem. I have to work really hard to build it up again each time. But by undertaking work placements and challenging myself with new experiences, I am equally determined to grow my self-belief.

This is all particularly frustrating as I know that once I find and settle into the right job, my confidence will increase further. This will, in turn, give me skills to deal with my anxiety better. Not only will I then be able to show my true ability, but I know that a job can give me a renewed sense of purpose and belonging. At the end of the day, I just want to fit in somewhere and be part of a team.

Maxwell Dean

What employers need to do

Questions such as; “tell me about yourself,” may seem very straight-forward to anyone else, but can be confusing for someone with autism. To me, it is not exactly clear what the interviewer wants to know. In this situation, I sometimes become confused about where I to start before the interview has even got going.

But employers can make simple changes to help autistic interviewees. They could expand on their question to make it clearer, or be more specific. Though this does not affect me personally, for some autistic candidates, avoiding idioms and metaphors is also very helpful. This includes such cliche phrases as ‘blue sky thinking’. Providing the questions to applicants before the interview can also be a very simple but hugely beneficial adjustment.

Cutting out interviews

With interviews being a massive barrier, a short work trial would be much more beneficial, for both parties. They’re a chance for someone with autism to demonstrate their skills and gain the confidence they need to show their true potential within a work setting, without the pressure of a time-based interview.

Autistic candidates, due to their neurotypical abilities, can possess many strengths. These skills, such as high levels of concentration, reliability, conscientiousness and persistence can be invaluable to any employer.

Autistic candidates can also be highly creative and very innovative thinkers, as they are used to having to think in new ways to overcome complex challenges. They often have detailed factual knowledge of a huge variety of topics as well. Due to the very nature of interviews, these assets are often qualities that can be missed by employers.

Making the workplace more accommodating

Within a workplace setting itself, employers can take many steps to help existing employees on the autistic spectrum fulfil their potential by putting inclusivity at the heart of their approach. Reflecting on my own personal experiences, these could be as simple as creating a quiet room. Or perhaps providing mentors to help someone settle into a new environment gradually, or simply be there if they need someone to talk to.

Above all, however, I believe that it is paramount that employers are patient and recognise that everyone is different. The range of individual abilities within the autistic spectrum, as with those who are not, can be huge. In the end, no-one is the same and we all should value this.

Hiring an autistic person demonstrates, in a very real way, an employer’s commitment to diversity. It’s also an opportunity to create a workforce that represents the full spectrum of society and utilises the talent among the disabled community.

By Maxwell Dean

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