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Why The 'A' Word Shouldn't Be A Barrier To Employment
Stuart Vallantine, Features Writer
In the last decade, our awareness of autism spectrum conditions have improved dramatically.

The assumption of people with autism spectrum conditions being Raymond Babbit clones is redundant.

This is backed-up by published works from professionals, parents, and individuals.

Over the last two months the BBC has helped to change our perception, thanks to three television programmes.

One is a part live action and part animated children's series entitled Pablo.

This is seen through the eyes of a child with autism, who gets over his challenges in 'The Art World' with his friends (known as 'The Book Animals').

In Chris Packham: Aspergers and Me, we had a candid portrait of the wildlife expert's life with Asperger's Syndrome.

This week saw the start of the second series of The 'A' Word, a continuing drama set in Cumbria. It focuses on the Hughes' family's five-year-old son Joe, who likes listening to punk and new wave music.

In The Daily Telegraph, its television reviewer Tristram Fane Saunders claimed that “TV finally got autism right” with The 'A' Word.

We see Joe as part of the Hughes family going beyond the lazy autism stereotypes.

For younger children, Pablo educates and entertains – again going beyond the lazy stereotypes.

Where Pablo stands out is in its casting: most of the core cast and voice artistes have autism spectrum conditions themselves. Its scripts and story ideas have been inspired by authentic experience.

If television has improved our perception of autism spectrum conditions, could we say the same about our workplaces?

The untapped workforce

In 2007, I contributed to a book on autism and employment issues. This drew on my personal experience, from interview preparation to holding down a job.

Also by Stuart Vallantine...
The Rise Of Elland Silver Band
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In 2007, only 16% of adults with autism spectrum conditions had a full time job. By 2016, when The Autism Employment Gap report was published by the National Autistic Society, the figure remained 16%.

In other words, 84% of working age people with autism spectrum conditions are underemployed or unemployed.

If you counted part time work, the gig economy, or zero hours contracts, the employment rate is 32% - less than the 47% for all disabled people in the labour market.

An unemployment rate of 68% in the UK alone.

Why are people with autism, Asperger's syndrome and similar autism spectrum conditions underrepresented in our labour market? Could it be an inability to invest in the workforce and the lack of autism awareness?

According to the Equality Act 2010, employers from local shops to multinational companies have to make necessary adjustments for disabled people. Is it the hidden rules or transitions which throw us off course?

Again, this is where the Equality Act could be used to raise awareness. For example, adding an autism awareness theme for staff training programmes.

As expressed in the National Autistic Society's film Could You Handle The Rejection, the interview stage is a stumbling block.

We see how the candidate is overloaded by the protocols of a job interview.

The candidate might have the experience or qualifications for the position but doesn't give the answers they want to hear.

From my experience I have either frozen at the interview stage, given inappropriate answers or asked inappropriate questions.

This after making sure all the other checks and balances were made beforehand, from appropriate dress to checking timetables. On receiving a response, I could never bring myself to asking why I wasn't successful after the interview.

What is worse than failing to secure your position at the interview stage is the failure of reaching the interview stage.

Worse still is not getting a reply from your potential employer.

There has been personal accounts on countless blogs where disabled people have gained interviews by omitting their disability on job applications. It is dispiriting, and rejection after rejection can wear you down.

The long term unemployment or underemployment of people with autism spectrum conditions is a tragedy for both affected families and our economy.

From a personal view, the lack of sustainable employment affects earning power.

Also the ability to have a place of your own, a comfortable old age, and the odd treat as well as essential items.

In the wider economy, innovative thinking is stifled, whether in the arts or in science and technology.

There may be a 26-year-old graduate with Asperger's syndrome in Sheffield who could make our trains more comfortable with better seats. Or understand the digital signalling system that is proposed for Transpennine Express routes.

Additional support

Holding down a full time job isn't without its problems. Besides fulfilling performance targets, executive functioning plays a major part. Trains can be late, overcrowded, or both, and this could get anyone overloaded before starting work.

From past experience, delays had a negative effect on my productivity, so I added more time to my journeys. Any spare time between starting work and being near to my workplace meant a pre-work coffee.

The smartphone is a useful accessory for executive functioning. Besides being able to check the train times, bundled apps can be used for managing your journey as well as appointments.

Proprietary apps like Brain In Hand go further, being tailor made for people with autism spectrum conditions. It uses a traffic light system where 'pressing red' offers a direct line to a trusted person – a good friend or your next of kin for example.

In Yorkshire, there is one charity that helps adults on the autism spectrum: Specialist Autism Services.

Situated in Bradford with premises in Leeds, Skipton, and York, they cover the whole of Yorkshire. Their services include social skills learning and support, autism-friendly counselling, and autism awareness training.

Tailor made one-to-one support is available under the alias of Autism First. Support is also available for clients wishing to work for themselves.

Specialist Autism Services act as a bridge for employers and employees wishing to gain greater awareness of autism spectrum conditions.

With a little understanding, the 'A' word shouldn't stand for 'anxious' in the labour market.

'A' for action, not anxiety

An open minded approach to autism in the workplace benefits every employee and client.

We better understand how people with autism spectrum conditions have differing experiences to one another.

We see them as a help instead of a hinderance and appreciate their differences. Not only their knowledge but also unique perspectives, creative or logical.

Why does an open minded approach matter to all colleagues, on the autism spectrum or otherwise?

We all gain.

Investing in staff training and continuous personal development creates a structured approach for all colleagues.

Plus scope for promotion and keeping up to date with technological developments.

Effective consultation over changes in company structure and minor things not only benefits employees.

For fellow colleagues with an autism spectrum condition, this offers certainty and less scope for anxiety.

Thanks to the Equality Act 2010, plus support from national and regional autism charities, the framework is there.

Whether we choose suitable candidates or look at making job interviews more autie-friendly, we have a long way to go.

Once we have got that right, our economy shall benefit from a more inclusive labour market.

Why The 'A' Word Shouldn't Be A Barrier To Employment, 10th November 2017, 9:37 AM