This recently-completed study was a response to the career prospects of adults with autism, which are currently very poor. This is the subject of a major National Autistic Society campaign at the moment. It is obvious that employers play an essential role in offering a job. However, employers’ attitudes to people with autism may not always be positive. Autistic people may encounter barriers because of discrimination or misunderstanding from employers. One way to deal with this situation is to provide better information to employers about autism, such as this information leaflet created by Autism Rights Group HIghland.
In order to explore whether employer training might be useful, we investigated attitudes to, and understanding of, people with autism among experienced employers. We received full survey responses from 24 employers all of whom were involved in recruitment (most reported interviewing candidates more than once a month) and had on average 12 years’ experience in that role.
Our employers were easily divided into a group of 12 individuals with good knowledge of autism and 12 with less knowledge. This was defined both by self-reported level of knowledge and also by the quality of the sources of that knowledge (for example, high quality knowledge derives from personal experience or specific training, low quality knowledge derives from the media).
All employers had fairly positive attitudes to people with autism. This was measured by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Individuals with autism can make a contribution to the workplace“. Further good news came from the finding that nine of the participants had at least one colleague with autism.
Most interestingly, employers who had good knowledge of autism from high quality sources also had the most positive attitudes to autism. The same pattern was found when we asked employers specifically how likely they would be to employ someone with autism. When we evaluated employers’ feelings about becoming an employer of someone with autism (for example, asking them to rate their agreement with statements like “I would feel confident employing a person with autism.“), again, experience made a difference. However, in this case, most employers – regardless of existing experience – also welcomed the idea that they might receive specific training to help them support and supervise an autistic employee.
These findings don’t tell us whether good knowledge causes good attitudes, but this logic seems more plausible than the other way around. Certainly these findings will provide some of the justification for a future study, which we hope to get funded, which will create, deliver and evaluate evidence-based autism training for employers. The long-term goal of this research strand is to get more people with autism into employment, in workplaces where their skills are valued and their role is supported appropriately. What the data from this survey tell us is that there is a good reason to focus on the employer, rather than just on the person with autism.
In the meantime, if you want more information about employing someone with autism you might be interested in this information on the NAS website.
NB: Some employers provided feedback following the survey that they found some of the statements included offensive to people with autism. We would like to apologise for any offence caused. Negative statements (such as “Individuals with autism are less dependable as workers”) were included for good reason, as this is considered best practice in a survey study. It is essential that participants are presented with a wide range of views to consider as this provokes more honest replies. In addition, we need to be careful that respondents are not tempted to skim through a list of statements and tick the same response (e.g. “agree”) to every one, but instead have to think about each statement separately before replying.