Discover Conference Recap: Autism and Employment

On June 27th 2019, we visited Autistica’s Discover Conference at the University of Reading. Here are some of the insights we gained when attending the Breakfast Workshop ‘Autism and Employment’ with Amy Walker (Founder of Neurodiversity Works, Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator at GroupM), Brett Heasman (CRAE) and Andrew Harding (Fujitsu). 

Amy started the breakfast session by sharing her personal autism and employment experiences as a young autistic person. She shared with the audience that she denied her autism diagnosis when she attended university. However, upon graduating she felt as she could no longer keep this up. When suddenly losing all the structure that she was used to from university, Amy felt that she was not ready for work and work environments. So instead she started to attend employability schemes provided by charities. However, these were often unaware of the needs of autistic jobseekers. “I was on the scrapheap of society again.”
However, she found Twitter to be a very empowering experience for her. Other Twitter users shared their stories and she realised that they face similar issues. It was also via Twitter that Amy found out about Ambitious about Autism’s Autism Exchange. Autism Exchange is a work experience
programme for autistic young people in leading organisations. Amy applied and was accepted into the graduate scheme at a civil service organisation. “I didn’t realise that someone like me could work in civil service.”

This was Amy’s first real opportunity to work in a professional office environment, in a large organisation. Yet she quickly encountered some difficulties. For example, working hours. Travelling during rush hour caused her meltdowns and panic attacks. Sharing these difficulties with the Autism Exchange team, they then asked for reasonable adjustments. In this case to be able to come in/leave before or after rush hour. “I was unaware that I could ask for reasonable adjustments, thinking that flexible work hours for example would be too big an ask.”

This internship experience allowed Amy to build up her confidence over the next couple of weeks. However, following her internship experience, she still found it very hard to get any interviews for other jobs. As a result, she then started a campaign to raise awareness about the Autism Exchange internship programme, with the aim for other organisations to join this scheme.

In spring 2018, Amy received another internship opportunity at m/SIX, a media agency. Here her internship lasted several months and was paid. Whilst working at m/SIX, Amy discovered that the holding company, GroupM, has an autism focus employment inclusion group. “I approached the holding group to share my experiences at m/SIX, and together we started to redesign the job descriptions and working practices to create a more inclusive environment for the neurodiversity community”.

Following her internship at m/SIX, Amy was informed that a Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator role was coming up at GroupM. She applied and got it! Amy has now been there for just over 10 months. “This inclusive environment makes me feel very welcomed!”

After hearing about Amy’s experiences, CRAE’s Brett Heasman shared some preliminary research findings on neurodiversity and employment. Brett’s research includes more than 500 participants so far, and several key barriers or enablers to neurodiversity employment are emerging. These include:

DISCLOSURE: 70% of participants disclose their diagnosis after starting job.
 •  Reasons FOR disclosing: 24% disclose after encountering difficulty in the workplace, to enable greater understanding and to manage expectations
 •  Reasons for NOT disclosing: Negative discrimination is a huge factor why participants do not disclose their diagnosis. Additionally, 15% say that the benefits of disclosure are not clear, whilst others voiced concerns about identity and stereotyping

MASKING: Masking describes the strategies that autistic people use to fit in. 85% of the participants say that they mask in the workplace.
 •  Reasons FOR masking: wanting to fit in, not consciously aware that they are doing it
 •  Reasons for NOT masking: do not know how to do it, not receiving adequate support because of it, emotional drain and impact on mental health, risk of being found out

ADJUSTMENTS: Adjustments are changes to the working environment and practice, designed to make jobs and work more accessible. Many are free or low cost, and easy to implement. These adjustments can work for all employees and not just autistic employees. Despite 77% of participants rating adjustments as important, only 32% of the participants surveyed asked for adjustments in their workplace.
 •  Reasons FOR asking: benefits for the employee (comfort, sensory, accessibility), should be protected by equality act, tests wider organisational culture towards neurodiversity
 •  Reasons for NOT asking: can be refused if deemed to impact other employees, can be seen as a trouble maker for asking, can involve great effort in seeking to get adjustments implemented, pathways to asking for adjustments not clear

Common adjustments fall into four categories:
 •  Physical space: having an allocated desk, no strip lighting, temperature controls, spaced seating
 •  Equipment: providing ear plugs, site blocker software, online resources, headphones
 •  Social: relaxing social obligations, provide spaces for eating lunch away, being aware of clothing & perfumes, providing quiet spaces
 •  Management: provide flexi-time, explicit instructions, weekly plan, extra breaks

The research also highlights that autistic participants think that a manager’s traits and values, such as their knowledge of autism, being empathetic, and exhibiting a desire to retain staff, are a big factor when it comes to neurodiversity employment practices. Additionally, resources available, such as financial costs, convenience for managers, and time and space for adjustments, were also seen as barriers or enablers.

Brett’s presentation was followed by Andrew Harding, who briefly introduced some of the adjustments that Fujitsu has started to implement at their offices. These included adjusting the promotion panel processes by removing questions like “Is this individual comfortable with ambiguity?”, changing their job descriptions to attract neurodiverse talents, and introducing a buddy system. By having a buddy at work (autistic or non-autistic), the employees can confidently share brief updates on their state of mind and wellbeing, as well as meeting for a chat without any social pressures if wanted, or share information about any additional adjustments they would like to see. Over the last couple of months, Fujitsu has already seen huge benefits since introducing these adjustments. It is encouraging to hear that this is only the beginning of their journey.

– – – The breakfast workshops were not filmed/recorded, however the Discover Conference keynote lectures and other sessions were recorded and can be viewed here.

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