Companies miss out if they don't reach out to people on the autism spectrum

A report released this month by The National Autistic Society Scotland revealed that the number of autistic adults in employment has stagnated for nearly a decade. The Autism Employment Gap: Too Much Information in the Workplace says just 16 per cent have full-time work.

Jenny Paterson, director of The National Autistic Society Scotland
Jenny Paterson, director of The National Autistic Society Scotland

A similar number are in part-time employment, meaning just a third of autistic adults in this country have a paying job.

Autistic people in Scotland have been let down by UK Government work programmes for far too long, their many skills and abilities overlooked. The Scottish Government has an important opportunity to turn this around when new powers are devolved from Westminster in April 2017 and it begins to deliver new work programmes for disabled people. One of our recommendations is that it consults with autistic people, their families, and charities like ours as it develops these programmes. It’s essential they meet the specific needs of those on the autism spectrum, and that the people who are responsible for delivery have an understanding of the condition.

Michael Clarkson has been in touch with our charity’s employment service since he was first diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. He has four degrees and is employed by two of Scotland’s leading universities in seasonal roles that include IT tutoring, exam invigilation and visa checking. He is a qualified cricket scorer, and on the Cricket Scotland national panel. He recognises that some of the traits relating to his Aspergers – excellent concentration, focus for repetitive tasks and high attention to detail – make him good at his job. But he also thinks that employers feel they would be taking an increased risk in employing him.

Many autistic people tell us they feel they are in low-skilled work and employers don’t see their abilities, they just see a “problem”.

On the other hand, we know that many employers worry about getting support for autistic employees wrong. That’s where charities like The National Autistic Society Scotland come in – we have a role to play in sharing our specialist knowledge so that autistic people can thrive in the workplace. We have a team of employment experts who can visit workplaces to offer tailored advice, and we have created a free downloadable information pack which is full of hints and tips for employers.

We hope that increasing understanding of autism amongst employers will result in more companies offering apprenticeships, work experience and volunteering opportunities to autistic people. “Stepping stone” roles like these often translate directly into jobs as they allow both participants and employers to test suitability. Property services company Mitie is already doing this. It’s working with our charity, Remploy and the Construction Industry Training Board to provide invaluable work experience, training and mentoring opportunities in the construction industry to 12 autistic adults. We hope to see more companies across Scotland follow their lead.

The potential benefits of addressing the autism employment gap are clear: autistic people become more independent, employers gain their skills and commitment, and taxpayers save on benefit payments. Our research shows that the vast majority of autistic people who are able to work, want to work – and it is vital the Scottish Government and employers work with our charity to make this possible and close the autism employment gap.

Jenny Paterson, director of The National Autistic Society Scotland