by Barb Cook, M.Aut., Dip.HSc. Registered Developmental Educator/Director NeuroEmploy Pty Ltd
Autistic people are confronted with an array of barriers in many situations throughout their life. These situations centralise around what general society expects of all people, a one size fits all model, without the distinct consideration of disability, difference and inclusion. With the added individual challenges of effective communication skills, lack of self-advocacy and self-determination skills, and the overall impact of anxiety, feeling inadequate and little self-confidence, autistic people are desperate for their voices to be heard (Paradiz, Kelso, Nelson & Earl, 2018). These voices must therefore be acknowledged, respected and acted upon in educational and employment settings, as these aspects of life heavily decide the outcome of the future for the autistic person. If these individuals are not set up for success, given the tools and strategies that they can implement to support and advocate for themselves, then we, as a society are failing at providing pathways to include and value them.
Research reports that autistic people have the lowest employment rates and more specifically, the lowest rate of employment amidst all disability groups (Roux et al., 2013). In my home country, the Australia Bureau of Statistics (2014) states a low employment participation of 42% by autistic people, highlighting the glaring concerns as to why these individuals are failing to gain employment. Again, the United States documents only 58% are in paid employment with Canada’s extraordinarily low participation rate at 21.5% (Roux, Rast, Rava, Anderson & Shattuck, 2015; Zwicker, Zaresani & Emery, 2017). In 2016, the United Kingdom’s National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information campaign exposed that only16% of autistic people are in full time work, and overall only 32% are in some kind of paid employment. Despite their ambition to work and, more so, their capacity to work affirms the necessity in identifying barriers and critical strategies on how to effectively support autistic people in gaining and maintaining meaningful and fulfilling employment.
To truly understand the needs and supports of autistic people is to listen. Society as a whole must support the autistic person in finding their voice, and facilitate them in conveying what their goals, vision and dreams are for the future. To attain these visions, suitable, quality and satisfying employment is the key in attaining these life goals. However, the autistic community has clearly identified its barriers and are demanding change in focus of all stakeholders that propose to support these people.
Important changes occur when stakeholders have a goal and feel connected to having a purpose in making change (Senge & Kleiner, 1999). These changes need to start with educators listening to the parents and the autistic child’s needs and supports, work with them collaboratively and inclusive of both their concerns, and jointly work together in finding solutions that provide the best possible future. Young autistic adults need to be heard and supported in finding their voice so they can advocate for themselves, setting them up for adulthood and a future that they can independently decide for themselves. Employers need to work with autistic people in creating working environments that support them, consider their sensory needs and value their unique way of viewing the world, and facilitate them in expressing new ideas and concepts that can effectively benefit all in the workplace.
Employers can step up and embrace the challenge of change through re-evaluating the way their business approaches and identifies potential employees. The antiquated recruitment model segregates and excludes diversity in thought and expression. Competent communication skills, and, more specifically, that of verbal language skills, is still currently viewed as an essential skill in expressing one’s personal talents and worth to a potential employer, particularly in the interview process and in the workplace. Effective communication often poses as a significant barrier for autistic people (Hendricks, 2010), experiencing great difficulty in conveying not just their needs and concerns, but also their worth and value. Changing the interview process to reduce the focus on communication savviness is a critical start. Placing emphasis on identifying the value in “outside of the box” thinking, ascertaining the importance an employee who is dedicated, honest, reliable and trustworthy, makes good business sense.
Employers that expand on the inclusion initiative by supporting and growing their potential and current autistic and neurodivergent employees will reap the benefits in a multitude of ways and become the leaders in change and true inclusion. The key to change is responsible communication. Communication must focus on listening and implementing supports and strategies that assist the autistic or neurodivergent person. Every opportunity should be presented through application and interview processes that assists them in conveying their worth, value and potential. When employed, feedback and communication is essential in growing together with the employee. Through my experience when working with a breakdown in the workplace, the key element to this breakdown is the disintegration in communication. Either or both sides feel unheard, misunderstood or unsupported. An employer that takes the initiative and time to step back, understand and identify how they can support their employee will reap the benefits ten-fold. An employee that feels valued and supported will often do their utmost in return. And this applies for all employees; listen, communicate, act and support.
As understanding grows around neurodiversity within the workplace, employers embracing differences and supporting autistic and neurodivergent people to grow into their potential – these genuinely inclusive practices strengthen and ignite positive growth within business. Autistic and neurodivergent people bring a unique strength, dedication and high work ethic to the workplace that must be embraced, with an environment provided for them to grow. These people, when supported and given every opportunity to flourish, become the role models of a dedicated and loyal employee. They are the potential compassionate and moralistic leaders of our future and can be pioneers of a new way of thinking and evolving together that benefits not just autistic people, but every person within the workplace, creating a truly inclusive work culture.
Barb is Director and Founder of NeuroEmploy Pty Ltd, a company providing a variety of neurodiversity specific educational and training programs for neurodivergent individuals, workplace staff, management and businesses.
She is also founder of the Neurodiversity Hub in Gympie Queensland, a space providing allied health services for neurodivergent people, including one-on-one support, therapeutic groups, workshops and presentations and an informal space to meet.
Bar is a registered Developmental Educator, Deputy Chair of the Developmental Educators Australia Incorporated (DEAI), and an Autism and Neurodiversity Employment Consultant and Life Coach for neurodivergent adults (ADHD, autism and dyslexia). Barb holds a Master of Autism (education) degree with focus on employment from the University of Wollongong, where she is also a researcher and co-project lead in the area of self-determination and self-advocacy for adults on the autism spectrum.
Barb has extensive experience in working with adults on the autism spectrum and ADHD, in creating pathways in attaining life goals in the areas of self-determination and self-advocacy, education, employment, health and interpersonal relationships.
Barb is founder of Spectrum Women Magazine and editor and co-author of the internationally acclaimed book, Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism. Barb is a prolific writer on neurodivergence and employment and is published in academic research.
A highly sought after international speaker and presents on a variety of topics related to autism, ADHD and Neurodiversity, Barb has spoken at the World Autism Organisation Congress 2018 in Houston Texas and 2019, keynoted for a special event “A Woman’s Voice: Understanding Autistic Needs” for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM) in Washington DC, USA.
Barb was recently awarded the “A Different Brilliant” award at the Aspect National Recognition Awards in Sydney and the Leadership Support Award from the Neurodiversity Academy. In 2017 she received a Special Commendation from Queensland’s Governor, his Excellency, Paul De Jersey for the Autism Queensland Creative Futures Awards.
Barb identifies as neurodivergent, being formally diagnosed mid-life with ADHD, Autism and dyslexia in 2009, and promotes a strength-based and person-centred approach in her life and work.
Barb is a passionate motorcyclist, and enjoys riding the love of her life, Ron Strom Burgundy, a Suzuki VStrom DL1000, who assists her with good self-care and an effective anxiety reducing and depression busting practice.
Australian Bureau Statistics, (2014). 4428.0 – Autism in Australia, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4428.0Main%20Features62012?opendocument&;tabname=Summary&prodno=4428.0&issue=2012&num=&view
Hendricks, D. (2010). Employment and adults with autism spectrum disorders: Challenges and strategies for success. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 32(2), 125.134. doi: 10.3233/JVR-2010-0502
National Autistic Society. (2016). The autism employment gap: Too Much Information in the workplace. London, UK: National Autistic Society. Retrieved from https://www.autism.org.uk/~/media/nas/get-involved/tmi/tmi%20employment%20report%2024pp%20web.ashx?la=en-gb
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Roux, A., Shattuck, P., Cooper, B., Anderson, K., Wagner, M., & Narendorf, S. (2013). Postsecondary Employment Experiences Among Young Adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(9), 931-939. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2013.05.019
Senge, P., & Kleiner, A. (1999). Dance of change. Challenges of sustaining momentum in learning organizations. A fifth discipline resource. New York: Doubleday.
Zwicker, J., Zaresani, A., & Emery, J. (2017). Describing heterogeneity of unmet needs among adults with a developmental disability: An examination of the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 65, 1-11. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2017.04.003