Why I’m becoming an Autistic role model

April is Autism Awareness Month. In this blog our colleague Zeinab Ali, Digital Marketing and Membership Administrator, reflects on her own journey into employment and the work that still needs to be done by employees to close the Autism Employment Gap. Scroll down to read more.

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.

Which is why the new data published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which shows that only 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment and 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.

Since supermarket cashiers have been helping the nation stay fed during a pandemic, 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. I would say that one positive that has come from COVID-19 is that many have learned to value the contributions made by key workers because if they didn’t go to work every day, parts of our daily life that we take for granted would come to a standstill.

The need for positive representation

I think what has helped to change our attitudes towards supermarket employees, cleaners, and other underappreciated members of society is the news coverage they have received during the pandemic. It has rightfully praised everything they have 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 these people 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 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 for five years in August 2021.

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 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 Awareness 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 Awareness Month?

Autism Awareness Month is an international event that takes place in April, where people raise awareness about autism, a disability that affects the brain. Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways.

For example, I enjoy social interaction but I can become anxious in unfamiliar situations. Some autistic people may also find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable. Other autistic people, like me, may take longer to understand information and find it helpful to break information down into chunks.

Autism can affect people’s communication and learning skills in different ways, but with the right support, many autistic people can live a happy and full life.

What can employers do?

This Autism Awareness 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.
  • 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.