Approximately 26 per cent of participants raised the issue of employment. As with earlier themes, participants discussed employment under each outcome so that it is clearly viewed as being central to realising the strategy's vision for autistic people. Subthemes that emerged in this section including employer awareness, the need to provide more opportunities for autistic people and the need for appropriate support, both pre-employment and in-work support. By way of context, a number of participants noted the low employment rate for autistic people – estimated approximately at 16 per cent – compared to both the national employment rate and the rate for disabled people generally.
A clear majority of participants said more needs to be done to raise employers' awareness of autism. A number discussed this in generic terms:
- 'Encourage employers to regard autism in a more favourable light'.
- 'Create greater awareness of autism and the need for specific strategies in relation to housing, benefits, employment and training opportunities'.
- 'Hopefully make employers more aware of autism'.
Several participants discussed what could be done to raise employers' awareness, including a public awareness campaign and more training, to give employers the 'confidence to employ a person with autism'. One suggested developing a website for employers and public workers with 'clear information on the likely needs of autistic people, their rights and how best to support them [that] would reduce conflicts and stress for all involved'. Others said guidance, including national guidance, for employers on how to support autistic people in the workplace would be useful. Another said that developing an 'investors in autism' accreditation along the lines of the Investors in People award would 'encourage autism awareness and responsiveness in the commercial sector'.
Some participants said employers' lack of understanding has meant autistic people have missed out on employment opportunities or lost jobs because of discriminatory practices:
Many autistics without any intellectual disability, including myself, have been refused at every interview due (we're told) to our lack of self-awareness - when, once given work, we may function perfectly well in teams and with other people
A number of participants linked this lack of awareness to the interview phase of a job application. A 'lack of social skills' and difficulty in 'selling themselves' can make interviews particularly difficult for autistic individuals; indeed, the whole application process, including the interview, can be 'just too terrifying and stressful to manage'. Employers need to understand that autistic people may do 'very badly' at interview and why the person's responses may be 'too honest or weird'. One participant noted the 'negative feedback' they received following interviews they had attended, while a parent explained why dependence on interviews is flawed, because they do not :
Truly reflect the abilities and skills of the person, that they are not seeing the person who they will be employing - i.e. every job my son has gone for has to be applied for online and then is followed by an interview that involves 'team building' exercises with activities that are completely alien to the work he has applied for.
Linked to greater awareness of how an autistic person may perform or behave at interview is the need to make suitable or appropriate adjustments. These could include giving the person the interview questions in advance of the interview, adapting the questions themselves, 'accepting and valuing different ways of thinking and expressing oneself', and allowing support workers to attend the interview. One participant said employers should be compelled to give autistic applicants an interview. In making any adjustments it is important to listen to the autistic person. More could also be done to help build confidence and develop interview skills and techniques.
A number of participants raised the issue of appropriate adjustments in the workplace. Some said employers had failed to make such adjustments and that an employer's lack of awareness and understanding had been to their detriment. As one explained:
I, like many autistic people, would much prefer to work but having to try to act 'normal' all the time, because of the attitudes/ignorance of others, is too hard; people need to understand that autistic people can be efficient workers but may require their colleagues to accept that we will often find our own way to do things. Flexibility around timekeeping and attendance is a must. I have lost every job I have ever had but never because of the quality of my work. 'Attitude', timekeeping, sick leave due to stress-related illnesses that could have been avoided if I hadn't had to continually operate so far out of my comfort zone.
Another participant said the Equality Act was not 'fit for purpose' because of the 'loopholes' employers use to 'get round' employing autistic people. Another explained why the duty to make a reasonable adjustment can be difficult to enforce because of different interpretations of what is 'reasonable':
Currently, employers are able to decide what kind of accommodations are 'reasonable', and often the kind of things that autistic people need are not considered reasonable. Large open-plan offices can be highly stressful for many autistic people because of the constant background noise and people moving around, but these have become so ubiquitous that many employers think a quieter working space is an unreasonable request. The Scottish Government could set an example by adapting its offices to be more accessible to autistic staff.
Some participants said successful adjustments have been made in their case. One, for example, noted that they are able to work full time because they are allowed to work from home. Another said:
I have received some adjustments[,] for example pictorial guides with screenshots for how to carry out my day to day tasks which I feel have made a considerable difference and also allowed to use earphones to distract me from day to day background noise such as telephones ringing.
There was consensus among participants that making suitable adjustments would allow autistic people to flourish in the workplace. One said autistic people can be 'really productive employees given the right adjustments and support…Encourage… employers to make adjustments for us [so] that we can participate in a way that works for us'. One parent, expressing concern about her son's employment prospects, explained the adjustments he would need are minimal:
He struggles with staying on task and organisation due to executive function…I worry…any would-be employer may discriminate against him rather than being informed of the condition and putting support in place. Even just prompting and physically showing how to do a certain job as well as being patient.
Giving autistic people the chance to perform to their potential in the workplace was linked to the importance of seeing their skills and talents – or taking an asset-based approach. Employers should be made aware of, and be willing to utilise, the special interests and unique talents of autistic people. Autistic people will often have skills and 'amazing talents' that others do not have; they can 'very capable in tasks, respond well to IT, and relate well to animals'. Employers should look to put such strengths to good use in the workplace. It is nevertheless important to engage with and listen to the autistic individual: 'I know my own capabilities. I know when to push and when to pull back. Please allow me to work. I am good at my job…I may need some concessions but I am not stupid'. The same participant, however, re-stated the importance of understanding and acceptance, being themself 'easily bullied and targeted by people who don't understand'. Similarly, autistic people should not be pigeon-holed or stereotyped as being capable only of certain kinds of lower level work:
I cannot and will always struggle to hold down a full time job, even one with minimal human interaction, because of my autism...I have been to disabilities employment companies, who have told me they only usually have jobs in catering, cleaning and supermarkets. I have a postgraduate qualification. I would like to do more than clean toilets.
Another participant said there has to be a new focus on:
Providing support and encouragement for work providers/employers to appreciate and utilise the valuable (and generally underused) skill set of the ASD community. This is particularly acute for those individuals with ASD who may be high achieving academically, but who do not have the interpersonal and communication skills to get a job, and who are usually (mis)directed onto lower paid, sometime manual work, that they cannot do and for which they are unsuitably qualified.
Opportunities and support
Most participants said it is important to support autistic individuals prior to starting work, and while in work. Again, the importance of engaging with the autistic person was highlighted. Some participants spoke in general terms about providing appropriate support:
- 'Support their employment'.
- 'More work options, employers need training to understand our needs'.
- 'Support to help people find meaningful employment and support to ensure that this is sustained'.
- 'Appropriate support through education, employment and in the community'.
- 'Support to gain employment; positive risks'.
- 'Support to get work'.
A number of participants offered examples of what support might look like. One highlighted the importance of 'on the job' learning, particularly for teenagers, while another suggested developing disability employment passports. Several participants noted the importance of personal support in the form of job coaches, mentors and specialist career advisors. These, on the whole, were discussed in the context of ensuring a person can sustain their employment. One participant suggested creating a network of mentors or advisors who can help both autistic people and their employers. The same participants said 'champions' should be appointed in all services, including employment services, to inform service development. A named person or advocate could act as a 'stable' point of support for the autistic person and quickly deal with issues as they arise. Another suggested developing a 'one stop shop' model of employment or career support, with each local authority using the model to develop personal resilience and vocational opportunities to build life skills. Any support must be tailored and appropriate for the autistic individual - 'see us as individuals with the same condition but very different needs and aspirations'.
A large number of participants discussed in general terms the need to increase or create more employment opportunities for autistic people:
- 'Provide access to employment opportunities. DO NOT WRITE THEM OFF!'
- 'Provide employment opportunities in the community for autistic people'.
- 'More employment opportunities'.
- 'Having real paid long-term employment opportunities is an ongoing issue for us'.
- 'More training, support and employment opportunities for those on the autistic spectrum'.
Others offered suggestions about what could be done to create more opportunities. One said, for example, that fully-funded apprenticeships should be available to all age groups, so that 'even I at 30 will find a job easier as employers will find that we are fully funded rather than partial funded, or just make it mandatory for an employer to take us on in the industry of our choice and show us the ropes'. Others noted the importance of supported employment opportunities, with one stating that autism-specific supported employment services should be available in all local authority areas. Employers could be offered financial incentives to hire autistic people, while more could be done through generic or mainstream employment agencies, including the development of autism-specific apprenticeships because 'many people with high functioning autism do not want to be associated with disability labelled employment programmes'. One participant stated their desire to see moves away from quotas or targets of disabled people in the workforce:
I want to know I got my job because I was the best candidate for it. It is soul destroying to know that the people around you think you only got the job so that company can tick the diversity box. And I'm not just talking important jobs, I'm talking about having people think you're not fit to scrub toilets because they 'know' you only got the job because you're disabled.
Some participants said more support should be available for those who wish to pursue self-employment. Mentoring for self-employed autistic people, or those exploring it, could be 'invaluable', while appropriate financial support would be 'transformative' for those who take this path. Self-employment should be approached in a 'small' and flexible way so that people can also keep their benefits:
Many would be able to do a few hours a week from home, only taking work during times they felt able to and cutting back when experiencing distress, but they couldn't possibly support themselves this way. Right now that would somehow make you 'fit for work' and you would lose your ESA.
Some participants touched on Scotland's new employability service – Fair Start Scotland. One said they had never heard of the service and that more should be done to promote it. Another said the service needs to put in place 'minimum legal standards all employers must meet to ensure constancy over how those with autism are treated within the workplace'. A parent said they would like a mentor from the service to be appointed to help their son find his 'first part time job and help his first employer understand him'. It was also suggested that procurement processes could be used to ensure providers and subcontractors in 'mainstream' services like Fair Start Scotland can 'demonstrate practical experience of autism training and awareness, not just equality statements'. A 'citizenship model' for commissioning services would also be useful, one that:
Takes account of the capacity of the service to enable citizenship in terms of employment/occupation, participation and accessibility of educational opportunities. This requires funding of the full economic cost so that we can move beyond services provision that has a "life and limb" mind-set to one that recognises that autistic people deserve access to services and staff that fully understand their emotional, physical and lifelong learning needs.
One participant criticised the Scottish Government's decision to award the 'majority' of the Fair Start Scotland contracts to non-specialist providers. Generic providers are not always able to recognise when specialist support may be needed, nor are they incentivised to provide it. Outcomes for autistic people should, therefore, be monitored on Fair Start Scotland, while local strategy working groups should include representatives from employment agencies such as Job Centre Plus and their attendance plans should include strategies for helping more autistic people get into work.