Driven new generation of people with the condition are showing employers there is no limit to what they can do
Jonathan Young has big plans for his career. The business analyst at Goldman Sachs is on the autistic spectrum. But this, he says, is not something he allows to hold him back.
“I’m the company’s global go-to guy for all the information used in every single one of our internal and external presentations,” he says. “I’m moving up the ladder every year in terms of responsibility or promotion. My ambition is to maintain this momentum. In 10 years, I want to be someone fairly big.”
He is part of the most visible generation of young people with autism our society has ever known. Diagnosed early, this generation have been educated to expect not just a job when they leave school but a career on a par with their “neuro-typical” contemporaries.
The confidence and determination of these graduates – some of whom are educated to PhD level – are forcing the pace of change in organisations previously inaccessible to those with autism. Businesses, from City law firms and banks to global healthcare companies, have begun to open their doors to young people once thought able only to do lowly jobs.
Young first went to Goldman Sachs as an intern in the National Autistic Society’s specialist employment programme, Prospects. His time at the investment bank was such a success that the two-month internship swiftly became a full-time, permanent post.
“When I arrived, this role was a part-time job but I built it up into a key, full-time post and made it my own,” he said. “Autism doesn’t hold me back because I have had the correct support from a young age. It’s key to have that support, both in education and in the workplace, but I don’t require anything complicated: people just have to understand that I’m different.”
For all his confidence, Young admits that he considers himself fortunate. “I never lose sight of the fact that I’m lucky to have a job that allows me to use all my intelligence and stretch my potential,” he said.
Prospects has placed young people with autism in companies including Thomson Reuters, the law firms Clifford Chance and Ashurst, the technology and business consultant Cartesian, and John Lewis.
Penny Andrews got her job as a library graduate trainee at Leeds Metropolitan University in August without any help from a charity or specialist employment agency.
Having beaten 200 applicants to the job, she believes she has proved herself to be the best candidate. “Sometimes I feel people think I should be grateful that I have a job but I’m performing a useful task and doing it well, so they should be grateful to me,” she said. “After all, they wanted me badly enough to employ me a month before I had finished my degree in IT and communications with the Open University.”
Far from feeling that her diagnosis of Asperger’s is something to be “got over”, Andrews maintains it gave her a lead over the other candidates. “I was completely open about my autism throughout the interview process and even asked for a few special conditions to take account of my Asperger’s, such as working from 8.30am to 4.30pm,for example, so I don’t have to take the rush-hour bus home, taking extra breaks in a special quiet area if I need quiet, and not having to answer telephones.”
They are small adjustments for her employers to make, she said, compared with the advantages her Asperger’s gives them. “I’m more focused, intense and honest than a neuro-typical person,” she said. “I do things thoroughly and pay proper attention to detail. I’m always switched on: even when I’m not at work, I’ll go to events that are relevant. Libraries are one of my autistic specialities and I harness that at work.”
Employers’ attitudes might be changing but there is a lot of ground to make up. Just 15% of those with autism have full-time jobs, according to research by the National Autistic Society (Nas), while 9% work part-time. These figures compare unfavourably with the 31% of disabled people in full-time work in the UK. More than a quarter of graduates with autism are unemployed, the highest rate of any disability group. Nevertheless, employers are increasingly coming round to the arguments from disability advocates that employing those on the spectrum is not about charity or social responsibility – but the empirical benefit of taking on people with unique skills.
Tom Madders is head of campaigns at the society and responsible for its Undiscovered Workforce campaign to get young people with autism into employment. He talks of a “vast pool of untapped talent” among those with autism.
“When someone has the intellectual ability and ends up doing a job like working in a supermarket, it’s heartbreaking. It’s such a waste because although everyone with autism is different, the things they bring that are additional to the rest of us include a very high concentration level, very good attention to detail and analytical skills that are key in data analysis and when looking for anomalies in complex spreadsheets,” he said. “Why would employers want to miss out on those skills? In addition, those with autism have very specialist areas of exhaustive interest which, if these can coincide with the job in hand, can be extremely useful. They’re much more reliable in terms of timeliness and absenteeism and very loyal. Often, they’re very happy in jobs other people find boring.”
William Thanh has such severe autism that he can only communicate through his iPad. But his work at the Paul bakery in London is of such high quality that the manager, Salina Gani, is keen to increase his hours.
“When we decided to take on three young people with autism last year, we thought there would be limits to what they could achieve,” said Gani. “But these young men have shown us that we shouldn’t assume anything on the basis of their autism alone. Yes, they need work that’s repetitive and structured, but much of the service industry is like that anyway. We would gladly take them on full-time and increase the numbers of people with autism working for us across all our outlets.”
At Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in London, an initiative was set up two years ago to help people aged 18 to 30 with autism gain work experience. Of the 20 or so interns who completed the scheme, four have jobs at the hospital. The third cohort of about 16 young people to begin this year will be twice as large as that in the first year.
Staynton Brown, associate director of equality and diversity at the hospital, dismisses any suggestion of the initiative being a philanthropic one. “This is not a charitable gesture,” he said. “We want to make sure we have the most talented workforce possible. It’s in our interests in multiple ways. For a start, this hospital serves a very diverse population and we want to do that to the best of our ability, which is more likely to happen if our workforce is used to working alongside a diverse group of colleagues.
“We’ve all benefited from the changes we’ve incorporated to accommodate those with autism. By clarifying the way we give information to and help introduce the interns into the hospital, we’ve made communication clearer for everyone, which leads to better patient care.”
William Elliott, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, agreed. “Employers are thinking more diversely about their workforce because they want to get the best talent through the door. We’re increasingly recognising those talents can be found within this historically underrepresented group.
It’s a lot easier than most people think to integrate someone with autism into the workplace. It just takes a good manager who is prepared to give some time to bring that person on, an approach which will be of benefit to every new employee.”
Project Search, a programme supported by the Office for Disability Issues, helps those with autism find – and keep – permanent employment in companies including GlaxoSmithKline and the security firm G4S. About 30% of Project Search graduates have been taken on by their host employers. An additional 30% are signed up by other employers.
“People are being recruited on Project Search before they have even finished the programme because, far from being seen as a charity scheme, these young people are rightly regarded as a talent pool, like student nurses,” said Anne O’Bryan, who runs the European arm of the programme.
Some of the improvements can be traced to government policies. The Autism Act 2009 – a response to poor employment rates for people with autism – was the first disability-specific legislation to be passed by the government.
In 2011, the Department for Work and Pensions and Nas published a guide for employers, Untapped Talent. But David Perkins, manager of Prospects at Nas, said the government had done as much harm as it had good. “Unfortunately, things really haven’t improved in terms of employing people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome over the last few years,” he said.
Prospects has helped place 30% of its clients in work – 18 people in 2012 and 15 in 2011. But these figures, said Perkins, are down on the three years before. He blames the government’s Work Programme.
“It has been detrimental in helping people with autism to find employment because it really doesn’t reflect the specific needs and difficulties people with the condition might have in terms of employment,” he said, pointing out that some Work Programme providers were getting just 3.5% of clients into jobs.
“Funding for courses such as our own – which is 10 times more successful – is extremely limited, and those with autism who want to work continue to struggle to get adequate support to allow them to do so,” he said. “As things stand, there is so little help out there for the around one in 100 adults with the condition, that finding sustainable employment for people with autism is an uphill battle.”
But Peta Troke of Autism Plus is more optimistic. “The job market is opening up to people with autism in a way it never has before,” she said. “There’s a ‘can-do’ attitude around people with autism now. There’s a spark.”
• Only 15% of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time paid employment and only 9% are in part-time employment.
• 26% of graduates with autism are unemployed, by far the highest rate of any disability group.
• Of those who do not currently have a job, 59% do not believe or think they will ever be able to get one.
• According to the National Autistic Society, most of the 300,000-plus working-age adults with autism want to work but are held back by a lack of understanding of autism and a dearth of specialist employment services.
• With help from the National Autistic Society’s employment support service Prospects, 70% of adults with autism were able to find a job.
• Only 10% of adults with autism receive support in finding work but 53% would like it.
• 79% of adults with autism who receive out of work benefits say they would rather work.
• 37% of adults with autism have never had a paid job after the age of 16 and 41% of people over the age of 55 have spent a period of more than 10 years without a paid job.
• 51% of adults with autism in the UK have lived through a period in which they have had neither a job nor access to benefits. Of those, 10% have been in this position for a decade or more.
• Of those who have worked, about a third said that they had experienced bullying and felt that they had received unfair treatment or discrimination as a result of their disability.
• Job applications and interview processes can be particularly challenging for people with autism, as the condition can affect the ability to communicate. Often “good communication skills” are described as a prerequisite in a job specification, even when the role does not directly require them – which can discourage people with autism from applying. Research by Jemma Buckley