Autism spectrum conditions
Autism and the workplace
The government has stated that its goal is ‘a society that not only accepts and understands autism, but also provides real opportunities at work for adults with autism to live fulfilling and rewarding lives, making successful and important contributions to their communities, the economy and their own families.’ It also says its strategy ‘is built on a fundamental recognition: that too many people with autism are missing out on the chance of the quality of life at work that others enjoy. This is a denial of their potential, their personal aspirations, their hopes for the future.’
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But the personal needs of individuals can differ vastly. Some require intensive support to build skills and overcome barriers to work, while others need little more than access to job opportunities. This spectrum of needs in society as a whole is mirrored – if not intensified – when it comes to adults with autism. At one end of the autistic spectrum, many adults are highly skilled and often highly qualified. The support they need is very different from those who have struggled to gain qualifications, or who have learning disabilities or mental ill-health.
The guidance below has been adapted from the TUC guide ‘Autism in the workplace’ written by Janine Booth, a member of the TUC Disabled Workers Committee, the Committee of Autistic-UK and trainer for the Workers’ Educational Association.
What is autism?
Autism is an example of neurological diversity, or neurodiversity. More detail on definitions of autism is available from the National Autistic Society also see our Glossary section.
Social communication and interaction: people on the autistic spectrum may communicate differently from neurotypical people. A minority do not speak. Neurotypical people learned through social interaction, from childhood.
Eye contact may be uncomfortable or difficult for an autistic person. “I can actually listen better if I don’t make eye contact. It’s an autism saying."
A person with autism may find it difficult to ‘read’ emotions and people’s facial expressions. They may find it difficult to ‘read’ social cues, for example when to speak, when to stop speaking, when a conversation is over, how close to stand to someone.
People with autism tend to think literally: however, neurotypical people do not always speak literally. So, from an autistic person’s view, neurotypical people can be hard to understand and seem very odd at times.
Special interests: in our society, if an autistic person has a special interest in, say, UFOs or train timetables, this may be seen as eccentric or an unhealthy obsession but a non-autistic person’s obsession with, say, boy bands or football teams is usually considered perfectly normal.
Executive function: these are abilities that enable people to translate motivation into action to:
start doing something;
change what they are doing;
stop doing something once started;
People with autism may have impaired executive function.
Motor function: people with autism may have impaired motor function, affecting balance, movement and coordination.
Sensory sensitivity: those on the autistic spectrum may be intensely sensitive (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hyposensitive) to one or more sensory stimuli – for example, heat, cold, sound, light, dark, textures, smells or pain.
Sensory overload: for many autistic people, the constant bombardment of sound, light, colours, patterns, numbers, temperatures, textures, smells or feelings can become too much.
Self-stimulatory behaviours (‘stimming’): many autistic people engage in habitual, repetitive movements that provide comfort and/or stimulation – for example, rocking, spinning, jumping or skipping.
Myths and facts
Beware of stereotypes; they can overlook people’s individuality, and lead to mocking and bullying.
People on the autistic spectrum are often thought to be unable to empathise. However, it may be more accurate to say that autistic people empathise differently from the way that neurotypical people do. One theory is that autistic people lack ‘cognitive empathy’ (the ability to predict others’ intentions), but have ‘affective empathy’ (the ability to share others’ feelings) and ‘compassionate empathy’ (the desire to help others).
Autism and Asperger syndrome in Parliament
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA) is a formal cross-party backbench group of MPs and peers who share an interest in autism and Asperger syndrome. It was set up in February 2000. Its role is to campaign in parliament for greater awareness of people with autism and Asperger syndrome, and their carers.
The official objective is:
“To raise awareness of issues affecting people with autism and Asperger syndrome, their families and carers; to raise parliamentary awareness of autism; to campaign for changes to government policy to benefit people with autism and Asperger syndrome and improve diagnosis or, support for all, people with autism and Asperger syndrome.”
Autism Act 2009
The Autism Act 2009 requires the government to produce a strategy to improve delivery of social care and health services for people with autism.
The Autism Act requires the implementation of a strategy which will lead to:
the provision of relevant services for the purposes of diagnosing autistic spectrum conditions in adults;
the identification of adults with autism;
the assessment of the needs of adults with autism for relevant services;
planning in relation to the provision of relevant services to people with autism as they move from being children to adults;
other planning in relation to the provision of relevant services to adults with autism;
the training of staff who provide relevant services to adults with autism;
local arrangements for leadership in relation to the provision of relevant services to adults with autism.
Fulfilling and rewarding lives – The strategy for adults with autism in England 2010
In 2010, in response to the Autism Act 2009, the government published ‘Fulfilling and rewarding lives: the strategy for adults with autism in England (2010)’. This sets out the government’s vision for autism services and five areas for action aimed at improving the lives of adults with autism:
increasing awareness and understanding of autism;
developing a clear, consistent pathway for diagnosis of autism;
improving access for adults with autism to services and support;
helping adults with autism into work;
enabling local partners to develop relevant services.
The purpose of the strategy is to make existing policies and public services work better for adults with autism. The government also produced statutory guidance to supplement the strategy. This says it is vital that local authorities ensure that adults diagnosed with autism who may have community care needs are offered an assessment.
Access To Work: https://www.gov.uk/access-to-work
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA): http://www.appga.org.uk/
Autism Europe: http://www.autismeurope.org/
Autism Hub (list of autism blogs): http://autism-hub.com/
BBC Radio 4 One to One programme 17 February 2015: John Harris from The Guardian talks to autism specialist, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.
BBC Radio 4 One to One programme 30 November 2015: John Harris from the Guardian talks to university researcher, Penny Andrews, who, after a difficult childhood and adolescence, was finally diagnosed as autistic in her early thirties.
National Autistic Society: http://www.autism.org.uk/