ONS data shows that just 20% of adults with autism in the UK are employed. This means that most of this talented population are still being excluded from the workplace during a time of acute labour shortage. Contrary to what we might like to believe, HR is the main blocker for autistic individuals entering the workplace.
To mark EU Diversity Month, we spoke with Nicola Martin, Communications Team Member at charity TalkBack UK, about this year’s theme of ‘building bridges’. She describes her experiences of doing so as an individual with autism in the workplace. Getting through the door was Nicola’s first hurdle. She explains, “As soon as a prospective employer would hear that I had autism, they wouldn’t be interested in employing me”.
What the barriers have you encountered in the workplace as someone with autism?
As an autistic person I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome aged 15, and Hyperacusis (hypersensitivity to noise) aged 30.
When I worked in a clothes shop in 2005, noise was my biggest barrier. There were also bright lights, and I did not like there being no windows to outside. It felt claustrophobic being in the shopping centre.
After leaving the clothes shop having been there only three weeks, I struggled finding work. As soon as the word Asperger’s was mentioned, I did not get the job.
Contrary to the preconceptions people might have about autism, communication is actually a great strength for you. Can you talk about your writing?
Failing to find employment, in 2018 I, decided to publish a novel I had been writing called Harmony’s Big Decision. It kept me occupied and it was something I enjoyed doing that could have been a career path for me.
With it being my first novel, I still needed to find employment for while I was writing my novels as it is hard to make money from writing when you are starting out.
You currently work on the Communications Team at Talkback UK, how did that come about?
In 2020 I joined Talkback UK as a member of one of their social groups. They recognised my writing ability and in 2021 they offered me a job as part of the Communications Team and Training Project.
By not focusing on the fact that I am autistic, they bring out the best in you. They try and find out who you are and then encourage you to try new things. They focus more on personality and skills rather than disability.
How can employers make workplaces more inclusive of autistic people?
The most important thing an employer can do is ask the person they are thinking of employing how they can make the workplace more inclusive. Try looking at personality and skills rather than the disability they have been labelled with. I have found at Talkback UK, working with non-autistic people has helped me a lot with things like confidence, independence, and doing things I never would have dreamed of before. I have also helped them, by opening their eyes to a different aspect of the autism spectrum.
You mention shifting the focus of recruitment towards an individual’s personality and skills. What was your experience of taking the Thomas’ Personality assessment like?
Using the psychometric assessment was quick and easy. It was also a great way of comparing my workplace personality with colleagues’ without looking at it as ‘an autistic person’ and ‘non-autistic person’. It focused purely on personality, which I liked.
I found it mapped out my personality surprisingly well. My colleague and I said how spooky it was that it was so accurate. The assessment helped us realise we were quite different from each other. We have found that this works well for us as we encourage and help each other in the areas we are not so strong in. For me, that is socialising and confidence. The assessment has showed us that people who are different can work together and that this can make the team stronger by combining different skills.
Can you say more about your current role at TalkBack UK?
I currently work for Talkback as an Autism Trainer. During training sessions, I tell my story of living with autism and the experiences I have had, positive and negative. I also work as part of the charity’s Communications team, writing blogs and articles to try and help make the world a more inclusive place for autistic people. I have had a couple of articles published on Charity Today’s site, as well as winning the Dimensions Learning Disability and Autism Leadership award 2021 in the work and education category.
Working for Talkback UK is great for me as I get to work from home in an environment that I can be comfortable in and have control over. I also get to continue writing novels and am currently writing the sequel to my first novel. I still hope someday writing books will be my main career. The only downside of work for me is the routine. Since I don’t like routines, writing novels is perfect as you can work whenever you want.
About Talkback UK
Talkback is an autism and learning disability charity offering support services for people with autism. With a team of over 70 colleagues delivering the charity’s range of services and programmes, the charity focuses on creating an inclusive environment in which diverse individuals can thrive.