Employment and Autism – What Worked for Me
Michael Barton has high-functioning autism. He is the author of ‘It’s Raining Cats and Dogs’ and ‘A Different Kettle of Fish’, both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He started his education in a unit, progressed to mainstream school with support and in 2014 completed a 4 year degree in Physics. He has been working full time as a Market Analyst at Buyacar.co.uk since 2015.
Only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time work, according to a study last year from the National Autistic Society (NAS). Their previous study, back in 2007, put this figure at 15%. In other words there has only been a marginal improvement in the last 10 years, despite autism awareness having come some way in this time.
The same survey also revealed that 32% of autistic adults are in some kind of paid work, which compares to 47% of disabled people and 80% of the general population. Why are these figures so appallingly low and what can be done to improve them?
Firstly, the biggest barrier for autistic people is the lack of understanding, not just from potential employers but the general public as a whole. Tony Attwood, probably the world's leading expert in high-functioning autism and Asperger's Syndrome, says people with autism do not suffer from autism but they do suffer from the ignorance of other people.
Secondly, autism is often referred to as an autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) which immediately gives people a negative impression of the condition. This is despite the fact that most autistic people have a very highly ordered way of thinking and consider the world, and people around them, to be disordered.
I believe it’s a question of appreciating autistic people's differences, rather than shunning them for not being like the rest of the population. People need to look past our social difficulties and embrace our strengths to help us make a real contribution to the world.
Entering the world of employment
Getting a job in the first place isn’t easy for anyone, let alone for autistic people. I spent nearly four months working full time hours looking for a job and made over 100 applications.
I felt I was ideally suited to every job I applied for and couldn't understand why they wouldn't interview me! At the end of the day, job hunting is a numbers game so you've just got to persevere. Set a target for each day, or each week if you prefer, and stick to it.
The interview process is one of the most common ways employers filter candidates and is very much biased towards social skills. In other words, employers are much more likely to hire someone they get along with and regularly prioritise this over their suitability for the job.
Autistic people have many great skills to offer which are often overlooked but need to be harnessed. Our poor social skills means that we’ll often get screened out at the interview process. However, part of the interview for my current job involved a practical test, assessing me on my attention to detail.
Temple Grandin, probably the most famous autistic person in the world, backs this idea up – she found that taking in a portfolio of her work to an interview said much more about her than any formal interview question would uncover.
Surely this is a much better way of assessing someone’s suitability for the job rather than by asking vague, open questions?
The need for diversity
Something else that I believe helped me to get my job was by saying how important it is to have a diverse range of people within the company and people who think differently. A team doesn't work if everybody thinks the same - you need to have different skills and original ideas and points of view brought to the table. In other words you've got to find a way to be different, instead of trying to be the same as everybody else, to get the job.
Having a special interest, an intense interest or obsession which is very common in autistic people, or other passion may be the key to standing out from other candidates. When I had my interview for my placement year in Cambridge one of the interviewers asked me about my rock climbing and we spent the next 10 minutes of a 30 minute interview talking about his rock climbing endeavours. I certainly think this is part of the reason they hired me!
I had on my CV that I have high functioning autism and portrayed it in a very positive light, with skills such as:
Exceptional attention to detail and accuracy
Having been working full time as a market analyst for the online car company Buyacar.co.uk for two and a half years, things are going really well for me. My skills are being recognised and used. They say I'm fast, accurate and very focused in getting the task in hand done. I know that I'm a valuable member of the team because I'm providing them with information and analysing data which helps them do their jobs, plus I've given the company insights into the car market they've never had before.
I therefore urge employers to embrace autism. You need a diverse group of people in order to build a great team and there are lots of autistic people with untapped talent, waiting to join you. Just give them the opportunity.
Michael will be speaking at the Welsh Autism Show at Cardiff City Stadium on 28 September 2017 www.thewelshautismshows.co.uk
For more information about Michael see www.michaelbarton.org.uk