Leeds School of Social Sciences

Autism and employment: what next?

World Autism Awareness Week runs from 29 March - 4 April this year. In this blog post, we highlight the challenges faced by autistic graduates and detail an innovative research project currently running at Leeds Beckett University.

Areal view of a road curve taken on a autumn day taken by a drone

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by unusual social communication and social interaction; and restricted or repetitive behaviours, activities or interests (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Autism is lifelong which means autistic children grow up to be autistic adults. Many autistic adults still struggle in older age with socialising and interacting with peers and may excessively adhere to routine or have high levels of resistance to change. We know that around 1% of the population in England has a diagnosis of autism (Brugha et al., 2011) with a male to female ratio of approximately 4:1 (Chakrabarti & Fombonne, 2001). Autism is considered a spectrum with individuals, like everyone else, demonstrating peaks and troughs in abilities (Hill, 2014).

Most autistic individuals are now aged 18 years or above but we know very little about the lives of autistic adults (Howlin, 2013). This is worrying because autistic adults report feeling socially isolated (Balfe & Tantam, 2010) and experience poorer mental health than ‘neurotypical’ (those without autism) adults (Hirvikoski & Blomqvist, 2014; Joshi et al., 2013). Low levels of employment are also reported for autistic adults (Shattuck et al., 2012). This is an economic issue as the national annual cost for autistic adults in the United Kingdom has been calculated at £25 billion – with 36% of this total attributable to lost employment for the autistic individual (Knapp et al., 2009). Furthermore, autism is a unique neurodevelopmental condition and is neither a mental health illness nor a learning disability. This means autistic individuals often fall into the gaps between services and may lack specialist support once formal education finishes. This places these adults at risk of social exclusion. However, employment may be a major route to independence and social inclusion, and this has important consequences for quality of life (Parr & Hunter, 2014).

In the UK, increasing numbers of university students are disclosing an autism diagnosis. The Higher Education Statistical Agency (2018) reported at least 12,000 student disclosures in the year 2017/2018. However, the number of autistic graduates who attain employment remains alarmingly low (Office for Students, 2018) with application forms, interviews and the workplace environment presenting many social challenges.

At Leeds Beckett University, we are running the IMAGE (Improving Employability of Autistic Graduates in Europe) project. This is funded by Erasmus+ for three years and consists of a strategic partnership of five Higher Education Institutions across five European countries. The project focuses on the skills and strengths that autistic graduates bring to employers and promotes the sharing of good practice amongst universities and employers. The project will:

  • Create an employability toolkit for autistic students.
  • Develop new training materials for university careers advisors.
  • Share examples of good support practice with academics, university senior managers and policymakers.
  • Increase employers’ understanding of the strengths and skills of autistic employees.
  • Actively involve autistic adults throughout, as part of a participatory design approach.

The impact from this project could support far more autistic adults into fulfilling and rewarding lives. More information can be found at The Image Project.

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