If you are new to the world of autism and neurodiversity, perhaps having just discovered that your child or another friend or relative is autistic, it can be a worrying time. You will have lots of questions, like can autistic people work, and it is absolutely the right thing to do to ask them and find out as much as you can. That is the best way to equip yourself to give an autistic person the proper help and support that they need. Well done and thank you.
A big concern for parents of autistic children is, I know, whether they will be able to work. I hope that I can offer some quick reassurance here – yes, many autistic people work in all types of jobs and are highly successful.
I am one of them (at least as far as working is concerned. Am I successful? Who knows!) I am autistic and I have worked full time for 30 years since graduating from university. It has not always been easy, but that is true for most people’s working lives, autistic or not. And I cannot tell you that all autistic people can work, because not all people can work, autistic or not. There are some autistic people who are unable to work for reasons connected to their autism, but there are also many neurotypical people who cannot work for a whole range of other reasons.
It is important to realise, too, that many of the conditions, including autism, which have prevented people from working in the past are now much less likely to do so. Employers are getting much better at seeing the value of a more diverse workforce, and the adjustments needed to accommodate staff with particular needs are becoming easier to put in place, not to mention legal requirements in some places.
But in addition, some employers are now recognising that autistic people often bring particularly valuable and useful skills and attributes, and actively seek them out. There is still a very long way to go to educate all employers in the value of autistic employees, but the tide is definitely turning.
In the past, most employers would have been put off by any special needs that had to be accommodated for someone to be able to work for them. Now, thank goodness, things are changing. There are relatively few public buildings left that are not accessible for wheelchairs, for example. The requirements of people with unseen and cognitive conditions, such as autism, are less well known and may be less obvious, but they may also be easier to accommodate.
Many autistic people are hypersensitive in one way or another. For me it is noise, for others it may be bright light, smells or textures. All of these are relatively easy to make allowances for in many work environments with a bit of foresight and willing. Quiet spaces can be created, big open plan areas avoided, walls and other surfaces kept neutral and so on. These are such minor things in many cases.
Autistic people may also work in a different way from others. Not better or worse, just different. Many of us struggle with face to face conversations and phone calls – for this reason, I cannot abide meetings! But with the technology available today, this is easier to deal with than ever. There are very few things that cannot be sorted by email, webchat, or text, again with a bit of willing from all concerned.
Getting a job in the first place can often be harder than doing it well once you start. Autistic people often struggle with interviews and do not show their best assets in this setting. One major change that needs to happen fast is much greater allowance for diversity in selection processes. In the meantime, telling a potential employer in advance that you are autistic, what this means and how it will effect your performance at an interview can be a huge help.
But employing autistic staff is far from a one-way street. In return for a few relatively minor adjustments to the workplace as I have just described, they can bring huge benefits for their employer.
Perhaps the biggest difference that autistic employees can make is through bringing whole new ways of thinking about anything to which they turn their minds. Our brains are wired differently, so we do not see or think about many things like others do. This can cause us problems, when we take things too literally for example, but channelled to solve problems, it can be a huge asset to a business. Rather than approach an issue in the conventional way, our brains may immediately come at it from a completely new angle and identify different possibilities. We also tend to think very logically, so many autistic people do well in fields like coding and IT, where logical thought is at a premium.
In tandem with this, autistic people are often highly creative. One reason for this is that our brains will often just not shut up, even when we want them to do so! The whole principle of brainstorming for ideas is that if you generate a large volume of suggestions, there is a good chance that there will be something of value in the overall mass. Many autistic people often feel like walking brainstorms – we have a huge number of thoughts and ideas about just about everything. Like anyone else, many of these ideas can be quickly rejected as complete nonsense, but as with a conventional brainstorm, more ideas to start with increases the chances of coming up with a really good idea amongst all the rest.
Another highly sought-after quality which many autistic people can bring to the workplace is a huge degree of focus once they become engrossed in a project. Some autistic employees become so transfixed on a task that they may have to be reminded to eat and go home at the end of the day. Think what that kind of focus and intensity could do or an employer when let loose on a key piece of work.
So to summarise, not only can many autistic people work, they do and in some areas they are becoming highly sought after staff. Progressive employers can see past things like lack of eye contact in an interview to recognise the wider value of that person as an employee. Autism may well have been a huge barrier to employment in the past. In the future, it could and should be an asset for many.