Why I’m becoming an Autistic role model
April is Autism Acceptance Month. In this blog our colleague Zeinab Ali, Marketing and Communications Executive, reflects on her own journey into employment and the work that still needs to be done by employers to close the Autism Employment Gap.
Autism and employment opportunities?
“When I was growing up as an autistic child in the 90s, people were very frank with my parents about my job prospects. They were told I would be lucky if I got a role as a cashier at Tesco.
This is why the data published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which shows that autistic adults are the least likely to be employed among disabled people, did not surprise me. Those figures are probably shocking to anyone who is unfamiliar with the barriers autistic people face when trying to get into the world of work, but not to me because of the microaggressions I experienced while looking for employment.
This anecdote from my childhood reminds me of how many people saw supermarket cashiers before COVID-19. They were often dismissed as “low skilled workers”, but the pandemic showed that if supermarket employees didn’t go to work, certain parts of our daily life that we take for granted would come to a standstill. So I hope the people who said “I would be lucky to be a Tesco cashier” have learned to better appreciate the skills of these key workers. Which brings me to my next point…
The need for positive representation
I think what has helped to change our attitudes towards supermarket employees, cleaners, and other underappreciated members of society was the news coverage they received during COVID-19. The media rightfully praised everything they had done to help keep our country going during a difficult time. I believe sharing positive stories of underappreciated groups can have a very positive impact on how they are perceived and treated by society.
This had made me wonder: “What if positive representation of autistic people was more common? Would there be more autistic people in work right now? Would people have been so quick to write me off? Would I have had an easier time getting my first job? Would my disability advisor have been so quick to say I should go into retail before she had even looked at my CV?”
Role models in the workplace
I will never know the answer to these questions because I didn’t have any autistic role models growing up. Autistic representation was not common in the 90s and even when I went on my first job hunt, I was the only autistic person I knew, as I had lost touch with the autistic friends I had made at a primary school for children with learning difficulties.
However, I don’t consider myself to be unfortunate. My parents are very supportive and have never believed that other people’s perceptions of autism should be a barrier to work or education. Many of my friends and educators felt the same, which is one of the reasons I graduated university with two degrees and will have been in employment since 2016.
I’m also aware that not everyone is lucky to have such a supportive network. It can be difficult to believe in your own potential if lots of people in your own circle do not. Even with a big support network, I still wondered if I would ever get a job due to how difficult some employers made the interview process.
According to recent research, Black women are more likely to feel like they belong in STEM if they have access to Black female role models. Having visible role models is an important part of making workplaces more inclusive and diverse, so this Autism Acceptance Month I’m pledging to be a more visible role model for other autistic people, especially those looking for employment. By doing this, I hope to help close the autism employment gap.
What is Autism Acceptance Month?
Autism Acceptance Month is an international event that takes place in April, where people raise awareness about autism, a lifelong developmental disability that affects how some people communicate and interact with the world.
What can employers do to support autistic staff?
This Autism Acceptance Month I would like employers to:
- Support their existing autistic or neurodivergent staff members to become role models. This is not only a good opportunity to promote autistic colleagues in the workplace, but it is also a way of showing autistic talent that your workplace embraces neurodiversity.
- Take time to learn about autism and how autism effects different people in the workplace.
- Review policies and procedures to make sure they are inclusive of neurodiversity. I found interviews particularly difficult when I was first trying to find employment, so it may be worth reviewing your interview processes to make sure they don’t discriminate against autistic people.
- Make sure line managers receive training on how to support autistic colleagues. I found having a supportive line manager to be crucial to my development in the workplace.
- Run an autistic hiring programme to help close the autism employment gap. I was hired by Inclusive Employers through a scheme called Learning Disability Work Experience week, this opportunity gave me a chance to gain some work experience and develop my confidence.”
To hear more about Zeinab’s experiences and advice on how to recruit and support people with neurodivergent conditions in the workplace, listen to our podcast.