• Mair Elliott

Autism and employment

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

We all know that work can be both fulfilling or completely stressful, sometimes at the same time! In reality, as much as we all groan about work, it is essential for us as human beings. We need to work to get a feeling of achievement, fulfilment, and basically just to keep us occupied. Unfortunately, in western society we’ve taken it a bit too far and have constructed the idea that work is the be all and end all, completely bulldozing the idea of ‘work-life balance’. I could write a whole piece on this phenomenon, however I promised myself I wouldn’t get side tracked.

Since it has been realised the shocking stats related to autism and employment it has become somewhat of a hot topic. Only 15-16% of autistic adults in full time employment, and 77% of those not in employment wanting to be in employment. Why does this level of unemployment in the autistic community exist? There are many many reasons which could explain it, for example employers bias and stigma, autism anxiety and low self-esteem, lacking autism friendly workplaces, in reality it is probably all of these and much more accounting for these rather disheartening statistics.

I have been unemployed since I left school, bar the Christmas temp contract in a large retail store which sent me spiralling into a mental health crisis. People assume that all of the campaign work that I do is paid, actually up until now I did it all voluntarily. I built myself a rather impressive CV (if I say so myself). Yet, I still couldn’t get any employment, I couldn’t even get interviews. Why? It is true that I refuse to not disclose my autism diagnosis on job applications, why should I hide a part of who I am? I wonder had I chosen to not tell potential employers about my autism if I’d been given an interview at least. I know that the people sifting through applications aren’t supposed to see that information – however I cannot think of any other reason why I wouldn’t at least get an interview. In the end I gave up applying for jobs because it was too heart-breaking each time I was turned down.

I now have started to earn money through the campaign work on a self-employed basis. But I can’t survive on that. A few months ago I was approached by a local education centre whom were looking for someone to help with the large number of young people experiencing mental health issues but didn’t need specialist NHS care, I graciously accepted and have been in post 1 day a week for a month. And although it has been great to finally feel a little bit more stable, and have some form of steady income, and be doing something that I am passionate about, it has opened my eyes to why autistic people struggle to stay in employment.

To start, the same with the whole world basically, places of employment are not designed for neurodivergent brains. The lights, the noise, the chaos, the office plans, etc. when you’ve got a brain that doesn’t process sensory information like neurotypical brains the whole environment becomes non-conducive with productivity. Instead it becomes one giant building designed to trigger anxiety, stress and upset. Not exactly helpful when you’re trying to prove your work-ability and value.

Secondly, the office politics. This I must say is something that I downright cannot understand or have time for. Thankfully, after years of meticulously training myself to observe and learn human behaviour I can spot it most of the time. But that doesn’t mean I understand why, or who, or the motives. I can’t read people as well as others, I try my best, but I still won’t meet the skill level of NT’s because it is something which I have to consciously figure out like a detective. When your boss gives you a funny look, NT’s have a better chance of understanding why, whereas I’m sat there thinking;

“What have I done? Did I mess something up? Have I missed something? Have I upset someone?...”

I am not in the job to ‘play the game’, I’m not ever going to be that person, my motives are to do my job and deliver the best possible outcomes, for my role that would be that young people get the best information, resources and support possible. But when office politics come into play, I cannot help but get incredibly frustrated. I know I am going to ‘stand on people’s toes’ (figuratively), I know that I am going to miss the subtle hints and, probably, the not so subtle hints. I know that I am not going to be able to understand office politics – making me the likely butt of it all. I can understand autistic people becoming exhausted and burnt-out trying to deal with that element of employment.

The last thing I’d mention is the performance anxiety that we all feel, autistic or not. The difference being that us auties have to try and force ourselves to be neurotypical in order to try and function in the workplace. We literally have to try and change our brain to achieve the same goals as our peers. We have to face the road blocks like sensory issues, social differences, information processing differences and many other things that our peers don’t have to. The performance anxiety increases tenfold. Again, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that us autistics can’t maintain that level of pressure and stress, eventually hitting burn-out.

I’m not quite sure if I’m writing this as a rant, or for information purposes, but either way it needs to be said. I am, luckily, very self-aware and aware of my rights. I know I can and have asked for adjustments to cope with the sensory environment. I know and accept that I will probably ‘stand on people’s toes’ and don’t let it affect the job I’m doing. To be honest, I am also quite happy to call people out on their bizarre gameplaying/office politics if I must. I also accept that I am likely not to be liked by some of my co-workers. These things don’t bother me, because I have had years of therapy, spent a great deal of energy becoming self-aware, and have learnt to accept these truths. But many autistic people don’t have this, they don’t get the opportunity to get to where I am mentally, for a number of reasons. I completely understand why the employment and autism stats are so shocking. It is wrong, of course it is unjust, however it makes complete sense given how workplaces and employers are set up and run.

I always try and end these pieces with some hope, or an eloquent quip. But I don’t quite know how to end this one. Until the is a culture shift in employers and workplaces, not just more autism awareness, it will continue to be difficult for us autistics to get and maintain employment. Its as (not so) simple as that.

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About Me

I am a young patient  activist, speaking openly about life with mental illness and autism. My activism includes public speaking, trying to affect change in mental health and/or autism services by contributing to relevant organisations, panels, committees and executive boards. I hope to break down misconceptions, stereotypes and stigma relating to mental illness and autism, and to create a future where mental health services are fit for purpose.

Want to hear me speak? Curious about my story? Think I could help you or your organisation to understand mental health and/or Autism?

Get in touch; Mair.elliott97@gmail.com


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