As an autistic person growing up, I quickly learned that discrimination was going to be a part of life that I would have to find ways to cope with. Upon leaving education I was fired from a range of jobs for being “too slow” and lacking social interaction.
A survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that only 22% of adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are in employment, compared with 52% of disabled adults and 81% of non-disabled adults. I was like so many other autistic adults—desperate to get on at work but held back by prejudice and a lack of understanding by employers.
I lacked the confidence to stand up for my rights and came to expect hostility in the corporate world as the norm. This led to poor mental health and severe anxiety around anything related to employment.
Now, 20 years after leaving school, I finally have a job I love and the confidence to self-advocate. Attitudes to autism spectrum disorders have radically improved but there’s a long way to go.
How have things improved?
I remember the blank stare at a college interview when I mentioned that I had high-functioning autism. “What’s that?” asked the tutor, who then told me that with my difficulties with social interaction I wouldn’t be the right fit for the course.
In 2021, these incidences seem far less frequent. People are more willing to listen, and there is a broader level of understanding. More positive depictions of autism spectrum disorders on the TV and in magazines play an important role in leading change. More research related to autism has shown how the disorder presents in different genders, and how it affects people as they age, which has all helped to address how society views autism.
Employers are increasingly seeing the benefits of hiring people diagnosed with autism. The business world has realized that the autistic adult has a wealth of desirable qualities that make us suitable for employment. There is better access to reasonable adjustments that can help us, and the law now recognizes autism as being on an equal par with physical and medical conditions when it comes to accessing support. Things are improving, but discrimination against autistic people still happens frequently.
Why do autistic individuals experience discrimination?
Discrimination can happen to anyone who is different, and often for autistic people it can be particularly hard to address because those differences are not as obvious as those with a physical disability.
Lucy Smith, CEO of Inclusive Change, works with autistic adults in the workplace. She has found that many have faced prejudice at work after asking for reasonable adjustments, such as a later start time, a quiet area or a permanent desk in a “hot desk” office.
“The fact that autism is a hidden disability can mean that they expect an autistic employee should meet the standards and expectations of their workplace ‘just like everyone else’. I have seen those people often left out of meetings that are relevant to their job, being told that ‘if we do this for you, we have to do this for everyone’,” Lucy explained.
Sometimes this treatment can be a result of unconscious bias, based on assumptions that a person may think an autistic person will like or dislike. They may believe that someone with ASD won’t enjoy certain activities, or won’t care what other people think. They don’t realize that people on the spectrum are all different. While it may feel upsetting, they may not recognize their behavior is discriminative if they have never had their beliefs challenged. Autistic people may be overlooked for promotion or not given training opportunities for the same reasons.
“Autistic adults can and do make incredible leaders with the right support in place,” says Lucy. “I am positive that the next generation of autistic children will face less discrimination as a result of the work we are doing right now to change perceptions and raise awareness of autistic inclusion and diversity.”
Discrimination starts early
I remember being made to sit out a netball game at school because I wouldn’t fasten the top button of my gym shirt. The collar literally made me feel like I was being strangled. I had to sit at the side while the other girls played my favorite sport. Playing netball was one of the few ways for me to feel included in the playground, but on this occasion, I was excluded. Already struggling with social situations, I was unable to join in conversations with the other girls. I felt more isolated every time this happened, and my self-esteem plummeted.
Lucy explains how one small incident can snowball, worsening developmental delays. Autistic children may struggle with organization and homework deadlines so a blanket detention policy without making adjustments for an individual could amount to disability discrimination.
“At school, autistic children are more at risk of being bullied. Being different is often a reason cited for being bullied and, being autistic, you are likely to be different. That may mean that a child may get into trouble for standing up for themselves. Autistic children may also not understand rules or find sticking to them challenging; this can lead to consequences or exclusions.”
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Gaps in support
While there is more support for disabilities and differences including autism, there are still gaps in support. Having a policy in place is only effective when everyone sticks to it. Daniel Jones, an autistic advocate who co-runs The Mind Changers, shares one example of this.
“One student I worked with had a support plan that said if they struggled they could leave class and go and sit outside the headteacher’s office to calm down. One day, the student felt like they needed to do this, but the teacher wouldn’t let them. They were told they had to do as they were told and sit back down in the classroom. The student ignored the teacher as they knew that their support plan permitted them to leave the room. The teacher followed them and cornered them on a balcony, telling them they have to go back to class and do as they are told.”
People with autism have a lot to offer the workplace, but often we can’t reach our full potential when employers are unwilling to make reasonable adjustments.
Daniel was repeatedly harassed after his requests for reasonable adjustments were interpreted as “dictating his work environment”. He says: “I was told to stop dictating my work environment. They then placed me in open plan areas of the office with strip lights over my head, surrounded by people, with many distractions, making me completely unable to do my job, which then became something else to get told off for.”
Rachel Morgan-Trimmer is head of training at neurodiversity consultancy Inclusively Tech. She adds: “Creating an autism-friendly workplace isn’t the expensive, difficult process that some employers seem to think it is. In fact, I would argue that the reasonable adjustments required by law actually come second to people’s attitudes. Wanting to be inclusive, understanding that autistic people aren’t really that different from everyone else, and enabling everyone to work to their strengths is where we need to start from to create an inclusive workplace. Having ‘autism awareness’ training just to tick a box won’t do any good if senior management don’t truly want to be inclusive.”
What can you do?
We can’t prevent discrimination from happening but we can equip children with the tools they need to challenge it. The best thing you can do as a parent is to help to prepare your child for the world of employment and encourage them to advocate for themselves. Help them to know about their rights in the workplace, and what the law says they are entitled to expect from a good employer.
It’s good to make children aware of some of the issues they are likely to face and come up with solutions as a team. Teach your child what behaviors to watch out for, and what is unacceptable, so that they can identify if they are being singled out.
Helping your child to see autism as a difference, rather than a deficit, can also really help to raise their self-esteem. By teaching them to advocate for themselves as adults they will feel more confident to speak up against discrimination.
There are laws to protect against discrimination, so if you feel that your child has been victimized then you could challenge it. Think about ways to resolve the situation, and frame it in a way that will lead to a solution. Lucy concludes: “This is easier with the support of a calm and supportive friend, family member or professional. Write down what the discrimination has been and if it is due to adjustments which need to be made.”