Autism in the workplace – the hidden disability
Grovelands’ Director, David Leen, continues his exploration of diversity in the workplace.
I mentioned in my previous blog that Grovelands, like thousands of organisations, strive to have a more balanced and diverse workforce. These aspirations bring their own challenges and raise important internal conversations around how this could practically be achieved.
Grovelands value diversity in the workplace and offer fair opportunities to people from all walks of life; we do our best to treat our staff fairly so they have a happy and comfortable working life.
I think diversity in the workplace is a journey rather than a destination and whilst I think a lot of work is being done in this area, one area which is very close to home that I believe is being overlooked is autism in the workplace.
Autism can be difficult to definitively identify and I don’t think firms fully know how to address this appropriately. There is a lot of press about organisations like Apple utilising high functioning individuals with conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome to carry out software testing which should be applauded, however, not everyone with autism lives in Silicon Valley, wants to be a software tester or more crucially is high functioning. This can be more challenging.
I have to show my cards early; my wife Fiona and I have four children, two boys and two girls. My eldest son is 19 and autistic, and one of our daughters, who is 8 years old and a twin, is also autistic. They’ve both had very different experiences at school, my daughter receives fantastic support, yet we were left to work out for ourselves that our son was autistic and looked into how to properly support and help him with his learning. Since my days at school the education system has progressed significantly - thank goodness.
700,000 people are on the autistic spectrum in the UK, that’s more than 1 in 100 and these numbers are regularly revised so the chances are you likely work with a number of autistic people now and don’t even know it. There are a variety of behaviours on the spectrum, some people are very high functioning but perhaps appear socially out of place whilst others may appear unengaged but actually face a very challenging day to day experience.
The workplace is not as progressive when compared to the education system. I met someone recently who spoke about an autistic person in a derogatory manner, frankly, they were quite rude. I wanted to defend the person they were referring to and leap to their rescue but realised I wasn’t sure how to effectively articulate the challenges faced by autistic people. I wanted to educate them, to help them see the situation from the other person’s point of view.
I thought of my children and how other’s might refer to them, I left like I’d let them down by not saying anything. There are a plethora of unkind remarks made about autistic people but given the right support, understanding, patience and care are capable of great things in the right working environment. Not only that, they would provide a more balanced workforce, potentially make life at work more interesting and open firms us to new avenues to success.
There are large leaps to be made in business to improve people’s understanding of autism which education will hopefully improve. The general approach to autism at the moment reminds me of the dark old days when racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination were accepted in the workplace.
Two cafés owned by Yellow Submarine run apprenticeships for disabled and autistic young people looking for work- a great move forward which should be applauded and recognised, however, I want to see people on the autistic spectrum hired in mainstream jobs.
Years ago I was assessed in a training session to understand how I learn and engage best with new information, you’ll have no doubt done something similar, if not there are loads of free assessments online that you could try. My results showed that I learn better by observing rather than reading or doing, I tend to jump onto YouTube instead of wading through an instructions manual. This has helped me immensely in how I develop myself but also in how I manage others.
Does your company have a learning and development programme that takes into account different learning styles? I would encourage companies to review their recruitment policies and procedures as well as their training and development, health and safety procedures and performance reviews to be more inclusive of autistic people.
I believe the view of autism is similar to how we thought about dyslexia 20 years ago - I hope it doesn’t take that long to gain a better understand of people with autism.
If you’d like to read around this topic I would encourage you to look into the following sources:
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 The National Autistic Society, Autism facts and history, [online] Available at: http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/myths-facts-stats.aspx [Accessed 7 Sept, 2017].