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Soon after the British philanthropist, Dame Stephanie Shirley, asked me to write a book on autism and employment, I came across the case of Grace Igoe. Grace is a successful ceramicist and Manchester College’s Artist in Residence, whose work aims to communicate awareness of the autistic condition. But years earlier, her psychologist had told her: ‘I can’t diagnose you with autism, because if I do, you will never find a job.’ I set out to demolish that hopelessly misguided and damaging viewpoint in my book. And since its publication in 2018, I have encountered numerous heart-warming examples of autistic individuals – some without any language whatsoever – who have found meaningful employment or hope, when the message from the professionals was sadly one of despair.

Nevertheless, people on the autism spectrum remain an under-used or misused population in the workplace. Despite possessing valuable skill sets, 85% of autistic people in the United Kingdom are not in full-time work and 46% of the autistic adults who are employed are over-educated or exceed the skill level required for the roles they are performing . Just 22% of autistic adults in the United Kingdom hold any job. This falls far short of the employment rate of 80% among non-disabled adults and 54% of all disabled adults. Identifying the strengths, rather than the deficits, of autistic individuals encourages employers to recognise the value of neurodiversity in the workplace. The appreciation of this diversity is essential, as much stigma is unfortunately still attached to being autistic in the workplace and these negative stereotypes may play a role in the disproportionately low employment rates for autistic people.

Adam Feinstein (right) in London with Thorkil Sonne, the founder of Specialisterne

Thorkil Sonne, the father of an autistic son who founded the company, Specialisterne (The Specialists) in 2004 with the declared aim of ensuring that there were a million jobs worldwide for people on the autism spectrum, told me why he uses the symbol of the dandelion to support his campaign: ‘If you put the dandelion in a wanted place, it turns into a herb. I know this, because I visited a farmer who makes a living out of growing dandelions. He harvests them for nutritional purposes. They give you back so much if they are treated well. It’s the same with people.

SAP, another company that seeks to steer autistic individuals into meaningful employment, puts it this way: ‘People are like puzzle pieces, irregularly shaped. Historically, companies have asked employees to trim away their irregularities, because it’s easier to fit people together if they are all perfect rectangles. But that requires employees to leave their differences at home – differences which firms need in order to innovate.

Apart from Specialisterne and SAP, there have been a number of other encouraging initiatives by the likes of JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, EY and Walgreens to recruit individuals on the spectrum, on the basis that these individuals come with specific strengths. So let’s examine the considerable evidence for these strengths. First, the anecdotal evidence: this suggests that autistic people have an enhanced local processing ability compared with ‘neurotypical’ individuals, meaning they are more likely to focus their attention on small details before processing the bigger picture – making them more efficient at certain tasks. And they tend to have good memory and creativity, as well as personal qualities such as ‘honesty and loyalty’.

Academic peer-reviewed research supports these claims. In 2020, Rosie Cope and Anne Remington, at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education in London, set out to investigate the strengths of autistic people in the workplace, as reported by these individuals themselves. The main strengths identified from these data revealed cognitive advantages such as superior creativity, focus and memory; increased efficiency and personal qualities such as honesty and dedication, and the ability to offer a unique autism specific perspective.

Many of the participants felt they performed tasks more efficiently than their non-autistic colleagues. Some expressed a particular willingness to do jobs or perform tasks that euro-typical employees may dislike. But it is totally erroneous to suggest that all autistic individuals are prepared to accept routine, tedious roles. This is just one example of a well-meaning but harmful generalization based on an over simplistic stereotype. A case in point is Alex Lowery. He tried working in an office environment with his father but found it ‘boring and repetitive’ and left to go freelance.

Adam Feinstein is an acclaimed authority on autism. He is the author of the much-praised books, A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers (2010) and Autism Works: A Guide to Successful Employment Across the Entire Spectrum (2018). He has lectured on autism all over the world.

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