Helping autistic graduates into employment
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented levels of unemployment - and autistic university graduates are likely to be among the hardest hit. Research from the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services shows that graduates with autism were the most likely to be unemployed at every qualification level - and the least likely to secure a permanent contract.
"We must understand that awareness must also lead to action." - Jonathan Vincent, Fellow
These graduates frequently leave higher education with academic credentials, marketable skills and lots of potential but, according to the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), they consistently report the lowest rates of full-time employment of any disabled group. Such outcomes often have detrimental effects on mental health, independence and future prospects - and as the wave of job losses and unemployment are predicted to surge in the coming year, these issues are likely to be exacerbated.
As we look to World Autism Awareness Day, becoming more aware of autism offers part of the solution. However, this only goes so far; in order to increase autistic graduates’ chances of reaching their employment potential, we must go beyond being aware and develop a greater understanding about autism and the relative strengths and challenges of individual autistic people. As we endeavour to become a more inclusive society, and industries strive to recruit more diverse workforces, we must understand that awareness must also lead to action.
Making small, cost-free changes could make all the difference, for example:
- Appreciating that autistic people can expend a lot of energy ‘masking’ their autistic traits so as to appear neurotypical.
- Being conscious that autistic people are often processing lots of different sensory stimuli in an amplified way, which can be physically and emotionally draining.
- Using clearer language that increases understanding for everyone.
- Giving time to allow someone to think about their response to help reduce social pressures.
- Recognise that autistic people can often approach problems in creative and novel ways.
- Creating a workplace culture where difference is celebrated and everyone’s needs are respected.
As part of my 2017 Churchill Fellowship, I travelled to north America to research best practice in supporting graduates with autism into employment. Since then, I have sought to address the gap in autistic graduates’ access to employment. In collaboration with autistic experts-by-experience, I have delivered training workshops to employers from a range of sectors including tech, health and government departments. Pre- and post-training evaluations showed that people’s understanding of autism increased by 48% and positive attitudes about autism increased by 73%.
Whilst these small successes offer some optimism, there is also a need to develop autistic graduates’ employment capabilities in order to maximise success. I discovered in my previous research that autistic students can often delay or avoid engaging with careers services, but that when they do it can be very useful for them. In particular, employment courses can be very effective - as this International Relations and Politics graduate recalled: “It was really helpful, especially for things like building up a CV, which I hadn’t really put much thought into before.” Thus, finding a way of making specific employment training available, at whatever point autistic students and graduates feel ready to access it, was a challenge I was excited to address.
In December 2020 I was fortunate enough to receive funding from the Churchill Fellowship’s Covid-19 Action Fund, which I am using to develop a free online training package for autistic students and graduates. Working in collaboration with members of the Disability Taskforce at AGCAS, autistic mentors and graduates, and other academics, we are currently developing e-learning modules which will cover:
- Understanding your autism
- Career exploration
- Disclosing your autism
- Understanding reasonable adjustments
- Navigating an interview
- Identifying your next steps
These accessible materials will be made freely available to every university in the UK and - given the reach of online learning - potentially worldwide.
As a consequence, it is our hope that autistic students and graduates will be empowered to understand themselves better, including their strengths and areas of challenge, and how to successfully navigate the job market.
So as we celebrate World Autism Awareness Day this year, I urge us all to move beyond just being aware of autism and to begin to develop the understanding to create a society and industries where autistic graduates and others can thrive and reach their full potential.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.