Being autistic means a different set of challenges, but not necessarily different goals from any other person.

With the gradual return to some sense of normality, so comes the eventual return of office work. Prior to the pandemic, autistic individuals were already having to deal with low levels of employment — the lowest of any disability group in the UK, according to the charity Hidden Disabilities.

Autistic levels of employment are counted separately by the National Office of Statistics. We are a long way from everyone being given the chance to find gainful employment, let alone in a pandemic. This has been a political issue for years. But why is no one listening?

Why have a Neurodiversity officer if nothing gets done?

When it comes to domestic policy from our two major political parties — Labour and Conservative — catering to autistic people is a rarity. If there is a policy, it is so too often the result of a tokenistic gesture. Remember the Neurodiversity officer the Labour Party had? That has yet to manifest into anything spectacular in terms of practical policy. The Conservative party has made things significantly harder, reflected best by dithering party attitudes. A little while ago a survey went viral. A call for evidence asked: ‘would you date a disabled person?’ (Autism is counted as a disability.) The minister for disabled individuals was nowhere to be found at the time.

Government policy is also a matter of ticking boxes, often to individuals’ detriment. For instance, the Department for Work and Pensions is in charge of benefits, yet you have to re-apply every three years for Personal Independence Payment even if you have a lifelong condition. Autism doesn’t just come and go; it’s for life. The DWP was recently criticised by the BBC, yet we are told through the Prime Minister’s Twitter feed that 2021 will be geared towards helping disabled people back into work. Bodes well.

The pandemic has shown just how ingrained ableism is in our society. Autistic individuals have had schemes developed specifically for them co-opted by anti-mask protestors, at times. Adaptations in work and education have often been suspended — something that has been ruled as unlawful.

Policy, however, is not the main issue. The problem is the lack of political will. Calls for change continue to go unheard.

Moving forward

Microsoft recently won praise for offering the chance for spectrum individuals to learn employability skills. However, this is somewhat striking. Autistic people largely already have the skills to be employed! It’s the ‘getting there’ — through the interview process — and then retaining a job, that poses the biggest challenge.

Despite stipulations of the Equality Act, anecdotal evidence points to accommodations rarely being made. At the heart of this is the issue of being invisibly disabled and prejudiced treatment. Diagnostic criteria point to autistic people finding job retention difficult. Maybe it’s the absence of workplace adaptation and accommodation? The Equality Act clearly needs beefing up.

Social expectations are also an issue, says Charli Clement: ‘At interviews, I think employers shouldn’t be placing emphasis on eye contact or firm handshakes … An autistic person’s ability to do a job is not related to those things at all. Extra time to process questions would also be helpful — not being able to answer immediately also doesn’t have [reflect] ability to do the job in question’.

She added that employers need to support integration into the workplace, as well as accommodations needing to be put in place more readily.

Interestingly, research suggests that autistic women are held to a higher standard than their male autistic counterparts. Being aware of this and putting in proactive measures would be useful. I have personally only come across adequate accommodations only once. The editor was well-read about the condition — I lost out on the job on my own merit, not my autism. Other times, I have been told that my lack of eye contact is suspicious; or that my autism would be a problem that the company would be unwilling to embrace.

In the course of the pandemic, we saw homelessness all but end (temporarily) with the ‘everyone in’ policy.  Autism and employability is another political issue that keeps falling on deaf ears. But if there is a will, there is a way — at least judging from the last 14 months.

Unique neurology can be useful from a business perspective. One just has to know what to do with it. How odd then, that this has not been considered by the party that prioritises business, or the party that supports ordinary workers. Hmm.

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