Originally published in the Huffington Post for Autism Awareness Week on 12th April 2019
I dropped out of school due my autism, mental health conditions and difficulties with friendships and bullying in year eight — and have been playing catch up ever since.
Around 700,000 people in the UK are autistic and yet just 16% of autistic adults are in full time paid employment. Every year this employment gap costs the UK economy millions of pounds — and beneath this lies so many personal stories of frustration and wasted potential.
There are many barriers preventing young autistic people from accessing the world of work — from careers advice that isn’t up to scratch, to rigid interview processes and inflexible working practices of some organisations.
I had a tough time getting into employment. I dropped out of school due my autism, mental health conditions and difficulties with friendships and bullying in year eight — and have been playing catch up ever since. I wasn’t given any advice at school on what to do with my life, how to succeed with my disabilities or how I could benefit from services provided by charities that help with employability — I didn’t even know that these opportunities existed. I felt like I was on the scrap heap of society, with no prospects.
I got into college to study photography based on my portfolio and did well, despite having no GCSEs. I loved photography as my form of artistic self-expression, it helped to heal my trauma, and I wanted to be reaching all the milestones that peers my age were. But I would have studied any subject that would let me in at that point. After I graduated from university with a first-class degree, I realised that self-employment as a photographer was not a sustainable lifestyle for me. I felt like I was back to square one.
I started applying for lots of roles, had a few interviews but never clinched the role. When I asked for feedback, I usually would not receive a reply — when I did it was to say I’d been pipped to the post by a better candidate.
I was beginning to feel dejected when I discovered Ambitious about Autism’s Autism Exchange work experience programme. This programme gives autistic young people paid work experience opportunities at a range of big employers. My first placement took place at the Civil Service, and after this I secured a further three-month placement at m/SIX, a media agency which plans and buys media space for advertising.
I benefited from lots of support from Ambitious about Autism after completing the Civil Service programme — from looking over my CV and identifying where I needed to develop my skills to help with finding opportunities and access to the charity’s youth network for autistic young people — which all helped to develop my confidence.
The charity also works with employers to develop their understanding of autism and confidence in hiring autistic people. Before I started my second internship, my employer sent lots of information to me about the team I would be working with that made me feel much less nervous. I was also able to walk around the office and get to know my managers and explain the reasonable adjustments I would need — such as starting a little later so that I could miss the intense rush hour crush on the tube!
During my placement I worked closely with the company’s diversity and inclusion and learning and development teams, developing relationships outside the office and proving my skills and passion in this area. As a result I was able to secure a role within the diversity and inclusion team following my placement. Through my work experience I knew I was working for an inclusive company that wouldn’t judge me for my weaknesses and would support me to thrive through my strengths. This made me feel a lot less anxious in the interview about having to prove myself.
Since starting my role I have been pushing awareness of neurodiversity at work. I believe we still have more to do but having more neurodivergent employees will be a huge strength for us going forward. Different perspectives and voices create better work, and working in an accessible environment has a positive impact on everybody’s wellbeing.