Tracy Clements is an English and Drama teacher. An avid traveller, she’s married with two kids and she’s on the autism spectrum. She’s in a safe job she likes, but she’s almost an exception. Only 22 per cent of autistic adults were employed in the UK in 2020 – but one in ten people across the country are neurodivergent, meaning their brain functions and processes information differently.
The challenge to increase employment rates is a complicated web starting with the apparatus available to autistic people. Most service provisions and research funding for autism have been focused on children, but there are more autistic adults than children. Of course, research on early detection is vital, and will enable a gradual reshaping of the workforce. But sitting back and hoping for change through osmosis is not enough, with many employers still holding onto outdated perceptions of disability – and suitability for work.
For Clements, the problem is rarely if someone can do the job – but because “no one actually knows what (autism) is and how it works” – nor do they want to invest the time to find out. This increases the isolation of the autistic community, preventing change in diagnosis or employment.
Ireland is known for its low taxes and penchant for drawing in the household tech names. Under the radar, it is also an example of the work that can be done to improve employment for neurodivergent people.
The government, along with the European Union (that old chestnut), gives grants to companies like Specialisterne, which act as a middleman for young, autistic people and employers. This makes up two thirds of funding, while the last comes from the companies accessing their services.
The support starts with the application process, but continues throughout their careers. Peter Brabazon, chief executive officer, said the main challenge is acknowledging what is needed. “Because we’re dealing with an invisible disability, it can be confused with others like intellectual disability. Because it’s invisible, it hasn’t been recognised”, explains Brabazon. In Ireland at least awareness has improved.
In the UK, of course, there will be no funding from our European friends. But designing a model based partially on subsidies and partially through the forces of the free market could help create similar bodies. Boris Johnson’s government has proven itself a proponent of “nudging” social initiatives through private enterprise.
As more companies look at how their ESG strategies can be more all-encompassing, bringing in different social elements from socioeconomic backgrounds to other factors such as neurodiversity, what Brabazon calls “niche” could also prove itself invaluable.
Many City employers have been doing this work in-house for sometime. Bryan Gill, head of neurodiversity at JP Morgan, says that the company has been matching neurodiverse talent to the right positions with “extraordinary results” for the past six years through the Autism at work program. Doing one-to-one discussions instead of panel interviews, and keeping them under 30 minutes make the interview process more accessible, widening the field of candidates. After that, much of the measures required are low cost – for example, ensuring people with autism have sound cancelling headphones, or giving them a desk in the corner. Simply being aware of what is needed can make a considerable difference – and barely touch balance sheets.
“It’s important to remember that by making the process of hiring neurodiverse people more effective, businesses are not doing us a favour. If anything it’s the opposite: research shows if you have a more diverse team you are more likely to be more effective”, says James Cusack, CEO of the research charity Autistica.
People with a learning disability stay in their jobs 3.5 times longer than their non-disabled coworkers. “I have seen numerous organisations dramatically improve performance and retention in some high-turnover or hard-to-fill posts by employing people with learning disabilities”, says David Forbes-Nixon, Chair of DFN Project Search, a foundation helping young disabled people into work.
With more disabled people in employment and less on benefits, according to the Centre for Social Justice, a 5 per cent rise in the disability employment rate would lead to an increase in GDP by £23bn by 2030. All of this costs money, there are no two ways around that. But government funding should be invested into projects which eventually pay for themselves and put the country on the front foot. Last week, banks faced the news they might have to disclose their carbon emissions in a green-spin on quarterly reporting. The social initiatives which sound feel-good on paper are also those we will all be held to account to in the future.