They call autism the hidden disability and for some it is even hidden from themselves.
Unite workplace rep Ceri Wright, from Wales, was one of those people. The 36-year-old began to suspect she had autism 10 years ago but had to wait another six years before being officially diagnosed.
This week is World Autism Awareness Week and Ceri, who works in a building society and is running to be a Labour councillor, is speaking out to let others know that autistic people have plenty to offer – if they are given the chance.
It can be hard to tell if someone has autism, which comes in many forms that vary in severity, but is generally characterised by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and restricted and repetitive behaviour.
The condition is especially difficult to spot in women and girls. Autistic females are often diagnosed later in life or even not at all. Experts believe this is because women and girls with autism are better at copying social norms, even if they don’t understand them.
But while autism isn’t immediately apparent from looking at someone, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. More than one person in every 100 has some form of autism, with symptoms often manifesting themselves in social situations.
“If you’re speaking to someone and they really start going on about a subject in far greater depth than a typical person would do, and they’re not following the subtle verbal and non-verbal signals that people who don’t have autism give off when they’re not interested in a subject, it maybe because that individual has autism,” Ceri explained.
“Also if a person is really really bad at small talk. You can learn certain scripts and make appropriate comments, mentioning the weather or the traffic or whatever, but if someone wants to carry on beyond that then an autistic person might become a bit lost or confused.
“Essentially they’re internally panicking about how to stay polite or appear normal so that people don’t think anything badly about them.”
In work environments, where engaging in small talk is often considered necessary to fit in, so autistic people are at a particular disadvantage. The difficulties start before a job is even secured, explained Ceri, who said that many talented autistic people are stopped from ever getting their foot in the door due to the way interviews are set up.
“More should be done to positively highlight the fantastic skills that many autistic people have. For example I’m about 50 per cent more productive than the other people on my team because I can find specific details and data in a piece of printed text very quickly. Other autistic people I know are particularly good at maths and computing because of the way their brains work,” Ceri said.
“But I fail miserably in job interviews. I just can’t do them. I got the job I’m in now on the basis of other people I’d worked with previously. I met with the manager who showed me what they were doing and asked me ‘how would you deal with this?’ and I said ‘this, this and this’ and they hired me. It wasn’t ‘what do you want to be doing in five years’ time?’ or ‘what do other people think of you?’.”
Ceri Wright representing Unite in a debate at last year’s Labour Party conference
Practical skills-based interviews are exactly the kind of initiative that Ceri would like to see autistic people, who are severely under-represented in the labour market, benefit from in the future.
Figures from National Autistic Society show that only 16 per cent of people with autism are in full-time work, while just 33 per cent are in some kind of paid employment. Just 10 per cent of autistic adults receive employment support but 33 per cent say they want it.
Ceri said many employers “runaway screaming” at the thought of making reasonable adjustments for autistic staff, despite the potential benefits for both the individual and the organisation.
But it’s not just in the world of work where autistic people are being held back, explained Ceri.
“I’m concerned that any person with autism could ever get the idea that things are out of reach for them. Nobody with autism, or any disabled person, should ever be given the idea that they can’t do things. People without legs are able to climb mountains nowadays,” Ceri said.
“As an autistic person I have a job, a mortgage and a degree. I’m a workplace rep and sit on a number of national and regional committees for Unite. I’ve also been inspired, through my work in the union, to stand for office in my county council elections in May.
“Unfortunately there’s a notion in society that if a person is disabled their life is going to be limited. We need to disabuse people of that. All the focus needs to be on what disabled people can achieve because society shouldn’t limit people – that’s not the direction we should be travelling in.”
Unite national officer for equalities, Harish Patel, said more needed to be done by employers to both open doors for autistic people and accommodate their needs once they’re in the job. As well as making interviews less formal, employers can help autistic staff with measures such as issuing tasks in writing, rather than giving them verbally, and allocating office space that is out of the way of sensory triggers, such as noises, smells, or bright lights, that may be unsettling.
Patel said, “Not only are people with autism missing out, but so are employers. Although people with autism may struggle in certain social situations, and work may not be appropriate for some, they often have valuable skills, such as tenacity and the ability to see things in a different light, which can be great for problem solving. These are assets that can really benefit an organisation.
“Accommodating people with autism within the workplace isn’t difficult. Some basic knowledge and a few simple changes can allow employers to take advantage of the many positive attributes autistic people have to offer – a process that Unite is on hand to help with.”
If you affected by issues surrounding autism at work contact an equalities rep in your region here.