With the general election just around the corner on 7 May, the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems have been pledging greater support for disabled people and more money for the NHS. They’ve fallen short however in promising to tackle the huge imbalance in employment opportunities for young people with autism spectrum condition.
There are currently around 700,000 people in the UK diagnosed with autism and only 15% of them are in full-time employment. Being unable to work dramatically limits their future independence and campaign groups have been working hard to promote the benefits of employing autistic people.
The undiscovered workforce
Despite often above-average concentration levels, extremely high levels of accuracy, comfort with routines and superior attention to detail, many young people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome face constant ignorance and stigma in the workplace. Person-centred planning goes some way to prepare young people for the challenges after education but more needs to be done to link in employers and dispel the myths around autism.
Employment was a key theme of this year’s World Autism Awareness Day and the United Nations launched an employment campaign, The Autism Advantage, to highlight the potential of autistic people. Microsoft also recently announced plans to employ more people with autism, as part of a pilot scheme that was launched in conjunction with specialist recruitment agent Specialisterne.
Autistic people who inspire
If employers need any re-education on the valuable contribution of autistic people, they need look no further than these ambassadors for change.
Temple Grandin is perhaps one of the best-known autism activists in the US. As a successful author and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, she has written extensively on career opportunities for people with autism and even listed the ideal roles that higher functioning autistic people would excel at. These include careers as a: computer programmer, laboratory technician, accountant, statistician and animator.
Her comments are some of the best and clearest in understanding the strengths and weakness of having autism and in particular the impact on short and long-term memory. Back in November 1999 she wrote: “If I were a computer, I would have a huge hard drive that could hold 10 times as much information as an ordinary computer but my processor chip would be small.”
Ari Ne’eman was the first autistic presidential appointee. His work as an autism rights activist has inspired many young people to achieve more, showing them that there are no barriers to what a young person with autism can achieve, especially when given the right levels of support.
He co-founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in 2006 and in 2009 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on Disability. He currently chairs the Council’s Policy & Program Evaluation Committee and is busily rewriting the public perception of autism.
Aaron is an inspiration, as a young entrepreneur from Edmonton, Canada his story shows that anything in business is possible for young people with autism. Working closely with his parents, he turned his passion for the intricacy of building Lego models into a professional career, building models for toy stores and selling amazing art works online.
Andrew D’Eri and his family are changing the futures of young people with autism in their local area. When Andrew found it difficult to get a job, his entrepreneurial father and family decided to set up a small business dedicated to employing young people with autism and helping them get their feet on the employment ladder. Andrew’s brother Tom D’Eri said they wanted to build an example that other firms could emulate.
Robyn Steward is an inspirational author and autism rights campaigner. She is a consultant on working with people with autism and sits on the UK Government’s Department of Health autism programme board and actively trains education professionals on working with autistic people.
London-based school pupils Jordan Fanwell and Christopher Harris recently took a stand on stigma. Concerned about their career opportunities after school, they wrote to their local MP, Stella Creasey, demanding more be done by Government to change the attitude among employers.
The two boys appeared as part of a TV documentary into school life in London and are now surveying businesses about their understanding of autism, with a view to improve opportunities for school leavers.
For more information on encouraging businesses to employ people with autism spectrum condition, check out the Autism Speaks employment tool kit. The National Autistic Society (NAS) also runs an ongoing campaign called ‘The Undiscovered Workforce’, which calls on the Government and business leaders to do more to promote sustainable employment opportunities for people with autism.
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