Category: Graduates, culture, Neurodiversity, Autism, York St John University, Staff Networks, Higher Education, What Our People Say, Graduate, Active Inclusion, autistic spectrum disorder, autistic
Autism is a neurodiverse condition that is often diagnosed in early childhood but is lifelong.
There are 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK. Only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment, and only 32% are in some kind of paid work. But how can we raise those figures and practise autism inclusion in business?
We spoke to Dr Jonathan Vincent, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, Linguistics, and Psychology at York St John University to find out.
Jonathan has a strong research background in the condition autism and employment and has published in various international journals on the topic.
In 2019, Jonathan was invited to present oral and written evidence to the Ministry of Education and Employment for the Government of Malta.
Neurodiversity is an area of diversity and inclusion that refers to the natural range of difference or divergence in cognitive function and alternative thinking styles such as: Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette Syndrome, and others but Jonathan believes we are all neurodiverse.
“With neurodiversity I would understand that everyone is neurodiverse. It’s just diversity. In order for there to be diversity everyone has to be involved. I’m neurotypical, others are neurodivergent so that makes us all part of neurodiversity,” said Jonathan.
Along with Autistic Experts-by-Experience, Jonathan runs PRO Autism, which delivers interactive workshops on autism-inclusive recruitment and has trained industry professionals in technology firms, educational institutions, and most recently the Ministry of Justice.
“I would say that autism is a different cognitive style. You can look it up and it’ll say it’s a disorder but it’s equally a different way of perceiving and being in the world. My view is informed by the autistic people I work with and one of the key things we do is to focus on the strengths, for example focus,” said Jonathan.
Some of the positive characteristics of autism are a high level of focus and attentional to detail, logical thinking and independent thinking; they are less concerned about what others may think of them.
“Autistic people can often focus on tasks for a long period of time and can be very creative as they perceive the world in a different way. In a work context, certain roles or processes might play to autistic strengths if they rely on systematic, logical approach, which is not biased by emotions. These are huge benefits to business.
“Autistic people often see the world in a black and white way and may find it harder to comprehend other people’s emotions but this can in fact make them more honest ” said Jonathan.
There are, however, also challenges that come with the condition that can affect autistic people’s experience of the workplace, sensory overload for example.
“Verbal and non-verbal communication is important and can be difficult for autistic individuals and one of the best ways to help is to use clear, logical language. Where communication is informal can be particularly challenging if it’s unclear what the autistic person is meant to be doing. Where rules are unclear it’s much more challenging in a work setting. A new office setting can be distressing. Changes to routine without warning can also be a big challenge,” said Jonathan.
So what sort of adjustments can be made to help autistic workers?
“Firstly, adjustments for this group can be minor and usually not expensive at all. But the only way you can know what a person needs is by creating a culture of openness so they can say what they need.
“Some autistic people may find bright lights or loud noises distressing, so it could be as simple as not being under a strip light or sitting at a window or allowing workers to wear headphones, not a big deal,” said Jonathan.
And how can businesses create an open, inclusive culture?
“Access training if you are committed as an organisation to successfully tap into this talent pool. If you really want a diverse workforce you’ve got to work at that and training, wherever it comes from, should be facilitated by neurodivergent people.”
It’s certainly true that there is an untapped talent pool of autistic candidates but why are such a low percentage of them in work?
“Autistic grads are leaving uni with excellent degrees but they are the least likely to be in work six months after graduation. They are struggling to get into jobs, so if companies can understand autism better, can see that adjustments are not huge or costly, and that there can be real benefits to hiring autistic workers, then we will begin to see a real change in this.”
What are the benefits of having autistic workers in your business?
“It’s having people who see the world and think in a different way. There are autistic actors like Sir Anthony Hopkins, autistic activists like Greta Thunberg, and autistic leaders in industry. Bill Gates in almost certainly autistic and runs one of the most successful businesses in the world. We need those who see the world differently and diverge from the norm.
“Better understanding leads to more diverse recruitment which leads to better outcomes and a different culture where there is more diversity, and that’s better for everybody.”
At York St John university they have staff networks across the organisation that offer support all employees.
Their Disabled Staff Network provides a place where people living with disability or health issues come together, to increase their voice and visibility and help the University be an enabling environment for all.
York St John also offer Equality and Diversity Training and Awareness and offer a number of different training schemes and workshops to raise awareness within their staff of conditions like autism and Asperger’s, among others.
In 2020 the university achieved 49th place on this year’s top 100 Employers list. Find out why they are listed as one of the top inclusive employers here.
For a full list of inclusive features at York St John university see their profile page.