As World Autism Awareness Day draws to a close (hey it's 1150pm as I write this but it still counts!) I get the sense that we might be reaching a tipping point in the understanding and response to this fascinating and highly diverse condition.
As the great Uta Frith said in her Horizon documentary last night, the neurological difference that we now call autism has always been part of the human condition, and historical experience. There is a lot of alarm in some quarters about the rise in the reported incidence of autism - according to one study rates have increased 400% over the past decade - but as Uta and others have said, the likelihood is that this is largely down to more sensitive diagnosis rather than new environmental or genetic factors.
What this rising incidence means is that more and more people must now know and care about someone who they recognise as being on the autistic spectrum. My anecdotal experience bears this out. Whenever I mention I am working on this topic, the majority of people I meet reveal that they have an autistic friend, relative or colleague. Autism is gradually (but still only very slowly) becoming understood, de-stigmatised and even appreciated for some of the wonderful differences it brings, alongside the significant challenges.
Having said all that, there is still an enormous mountain to climb before people with autism experience live without chronic stress, anxiety and exclusion from many of the things in life that the rest of us take for granted. Living as a person with autism is exhausting. It is like permanently being a traveller in a strange and foreign land (some say the Wrong Planet). Nothing makes sense and you have to continually, and consciously learn how to function around other people, while the 'natives' seem to acquire such skills effortlessly and instinctively.
The warm and insightful documentary last night focused particularly on the cognitive and neurological differences in people with autism, in particular their difficulties in understanding that other people have different minds, thoughts and interpretations of experience from their own, and the problems this creates in everyday social life. But it's long been known that differences in perception and cognition associated with autism can also confer powerful gifts and abilities in a range of tasks and pursuits, which the documentary also touched on.
The autism employment gap
What's shocking is that despite these strengths, only around 15% of people on the autistic spectrum have a full time job, compared to 31% for people with disabilities in general and 57% of the 'neurotypical' general population of working age. Quite apart from the human cost in terms of lost independence, comorbid mental health problems (e.g. depression) and strain on families and carers, one study found that this exclusion from employment cost the UK economy £9 billion per year. Unfortunately, as a recent IoE report bears out, most of the activism and research on autism has until now been almost entirely focused on understanding the causes and manifestations of the condition rather than on understanding how to help autistic adults lead healthy and flourishing lives, including getting jobs.
It's this mismatch between the strengths and abilities of people with autism and their current employment prospects that deeply concerns and frustrates me. And I'm far from alone. For example my late, wonderful colleague Emma Lindley also blogged about this a long while ago, and it garnered a phenomenal response. So what follows is what I've been trying to do about it recently. I do this because I'm keen to hear from any organisations or individuals who want to be part of this....
The Autism Employment Alliance
Since last autumn I've been helping to create and sustain an active but informal network of people with autism, and representatives from a range of private, academic and voluntary sector organisations, who have set ourselves the goal of radically improving the job prospects of what the National Autistic Society call the "Undiscovered Workforce". We loosely call ourselves the Autism Employment Alliance and we're keen to enlist more members, so get in touch with me if you're interested (firstname.lastname@example.org). In addition to those not attached to any organisation, people currently in the Alliance work for organisations including the following: Specialisterne, National Autistic Society, SAP AG, Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), Mental Health Foundation, RSA, Barclays Bank, Goldsmiths (University of London), the BBC, Novartis, University of York, Garratt Park Advisory Service, Hao2, Research Autism.
Developing a new employment service
This is not about joining a club. It's about doing something useful. So the first thing we did (late in 2013) was to develop an idea for a new kind of web-based employment service that helps broker autism-friendly work opportunities between would-be employers, employees and supporters/mentors. We called it AutieCorp (NB it's just a working title!), and immediately entered it into the European Union Jobs Innovation competition. To our great delight, in late February we found out that we were one of 30 semi-finalists out of over 1200 entrants. You can read a short blurb about our idea (and vote to support it) on our semi-finalist page here. The judges are deliberating on our detailed business plan this month and by the end of May we'll know the outcome, but will try to make it happen regardless, so if you are keen to support it in some way (e.g. as an investor, software developer, mentor etc) let me know.
Raising awareness and interest among employers
Another priority was to raise awareness and demand among employers for people with autism, by starting to effect a shift in their attitudes. To that end, we recently held an AEA/RSA panel debate which includes not only a great expert panel (e.g. Professor Francesca Happe), but also some fantastic questions and comments from the audience. An edited 20 minute version will go on the RSA website soon, but for those of you interested in the subject the full length version is well worth watching. Here it is:
One of the things the panellists stressed was how it's actually rather easy than most employers think to make necessary adjustments for someone with autism to flourish, and it has lots of positive repercussions for the wider organisation.
The Chancellor recently announced his long-term goal of full employment. In that light, the fact that there is significant untapped potential out there among those with autism, who may only require minimal adjustments, should be cause for immediate action. And it's welcome that today saw the Think Autism initiative launched by the Government. But in order to reach and experience that tipping point I mentioned at the beginning of the blog it requires persistence, focus, passionate interest and alternative problem solving mindsets - in fact many of the great qualities people with autism can bring to the task in hand.