‘Shocking’ data reveals only one in five autistic people are in employment

Latest government evidence session flags one-size-fits-all recruitment processes and lack of employer support as major contributing factors

Just one in five autistic people in the UK are in any form of employment, according to official data, prompting experts to urge the government to offer greater support and information to employers.

Data from the Office for National Statistics’ Outcomes for disabled people research, which for the first time this year asked respondents whether they were autistic, revealed that just 22 per cent of those with autism were in either full or part-time work.

This means people with autism are among those disabled people with the lowest employment rate.

Jane Harris, director of external affairs and social change at the National Autistic Society, said the figure was “shocking” and lower than any of the charity’s previous estimates.

Giving evidence to the Department for Work and Pensions select committee yesterday (10 March) as part of its ongoing investigation into the disability employment gap, Harris said autistic people were being let down by a lack of employment support “that really understands what their skills are, what their abilities are, what their challenges are”.

Harris emphasised that viewing the recruitment of neurodivergent people as a challenge rather than an opportunity meant businesses were missing out on the myriad benefits of hiring someone with autism. “There are some jobs where the fact that many autistic people can focus really well means they [could] really thrive in that role and sometimes far better than someone who is not autistic,” said Harris.

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“We really, really need employers that can understand which roles might work best for an autistic person, and also what support they can put in place.”

Harris also told MPs that “one size fits all” recruitment processes were a significant and widespread barrier to entry, and that interviews were not necessarily the best way to test some people’s aptitude for a role. “This is particularly true of autism [as] it’s a social disability. So if you tried to test someone’s skills in a social environment, it's almost like not having a ramp for a wheelchair user,” she said.

“It can be the worst possible way to test whether somebody can do a job,” Harris added, suggesting alternatives such as work experience or giving someone a project to do.

If interviews were unavoidable, Harris said specific adjustments, such as giving candidates advance view of the questions, can be made to help autistic candidates “really use all of their skills rather than being totally shocked by something unexpected”. Similarly, sending photographs of the people who are going to be conducting the interview or of the building where it will take place can ease an autistic person’s anxieties.