Overcoming the Autism label

Written by: Gerald Haigh | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

People with autism can be a real asset to the workplace, but a lot must change if we are to support ASD students into the world of work, says Gerald Haigh

Several young people known to me, including one who is very close, went through school labelled with ASD (autism spectrum disorder).

For parents of such children, each transition stage in their schooling causes extreme concern. The move to secondary, for example, comes with the double whammy of coping with a timetable and a school bus, while, quite often, being bullied at the same time by children with problems of their own.

The concerns don’t stop at the end of school, though. It is more than possible that a 16-year-old will find a further education college course. Just how suitable it may turn out to be in the long run is something else, because the problem of school-leavers entering unsuitable two-year college courses goes beyond this immediate issue.

Still, everyone in the family can now relax for two years. The next step might well be university, particularly if the college course was wisely chosen.

The big question here is whether the young person with ASD can cope with living away from home. In one case I know about, the student had a choice of two courses. The better one involved living away from home, while the alternative was a less suitable course within walking distance. There was much heart-searching on all sides, but really, living at home was the only practical option. The decision made, everybody could relax for quite a long time.

Except, of course, they don’t relax. Parents of children with ASD worry all the time about the future and the end of education at 18 or 21. “What are the chances of a job that will provide fulfilment? Will they be stuck at home, while we grow steadily older?”

They are absolutely right to worry. Survey figures from the National Autistic Society (NAS) tell us that under 16 per cent of autistic people are in full-time paid work (32 per cent if part-time work is included), a proportion that hasn’t shifted for 10 years. The NAS survey tells us that many part-timers would like to work more, and many others are in jobs that don’t match their qualifications.

As the NAS points out, not all of the 450,000 autistic people of working age in the UK are able to work. We should never forget that the “spectrum” encompasses some people who need specialist full-time care. That said, the proportion who can, or could work, could undoubtedly be extended significantly with some help from the workplace itself.

“With understanding from their employer and colleagues, as well as reasonable adjustments to the interview process and workplace, many autistic people can be a real asset to businesses.”

Anyone who is close to a child or young person with autism soon realises that once you start trying to see the world as they do, you realise that they are capable of remarkable insights and creative leaps.

A formal job interview, however, might be something else entirely. There’s plenty of advice for interview candidates around. I have written plenty of it myself. However, it is at best questionable whether the standard interview is likely to bring out the best in someone who is already uncomfortable with groups of unfamiliar people, finding it difficult to make eye contact or relax in front of two or three inquisitors.

You could argue, as some will, that the person who can’t hack all that will not be able to cope with the job anyway. Even if that’s true, which I doubt, the point is that many people do jobs which bear no relationship at all to the formality of the recruitment and interview process. That, I’d say, is where employers need to develop creative and careful recruitment processes designed to ensure that they do not miss people who think differently and will use those abilities to become key employees.

That the message is starting to get through is shown by the fact that global software giant Microsoft began in early 2015, initially in the USA, deliberately to recruit people on the autistic spectrum. As this Microsoft corporate blog puts it: “People with autism bring strengths that we need at Microsoft, each individual is different, some have amazing ability to retain information, think at a level of detail and depth or excel in math or code. It’s a talent pool that we want to continue to bring to Microsoft.”

The “interview” process is two weeks long (reduced from an original four) and described like this, on the Microsoft website, by head of the disAbility employee group Jenny Lay-Flurrie: “It’s not a do-or-die phone screen or a several-hour, in-person interview, but rather an academy of sorts – a combination workshop and interview to help put job candidates at ease.”

In early 2016, the hiring policy was extended as a pilot to Microsoft UK. In both the USA and the UK, the programme started small, with fewer than a dozen candidates. But it seems bound to expand and other hi-tech businesses are thinking along similar lessons.

I would say there are lessons here for all employers, the chief one of which is simply to loosen up and allow job candidates time, space and conditions in which they can gradually relax and show their qualities.

We already know that formal interviews are not particularly accurate at predicting job performance, so why stick with them? Start thinking and studying other approaches instead.

Part of this, surely, is employer-education engagement. Schools and employers who work together, spending time on each other’s territory, will develop mutual understandings that may well resonate in recruitment practices.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1. His previous articles for SecEd can be found via http://bit.ly/1UojJ5B

Further information


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin