“Less than one in four young autistic people access education or training beyond school and only 16% of people with autism are in full time, paid employment even though the majority want to work.That’s the statistic that worries me the most”. I’m talking to Chris Evans, Business Ambassador for Ambitious about Autism and Rullion’s Head of Specialist Markets (Technology).
As we enter into a world shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a recession on the horizon and BBC reports highlighting the younger generation as the group most likely to be impacted from an employment perspective, the outlook doesn’t look good.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Clare Caccavone, Ambitious about Autism’s Employ Autism Programme Director, who is passionate about helping this group of young people find their way into the world of work.
“It’s not just about helping these disadvantaged youngsters. The business benefits of engaging neurodivergent employees has already been proven and in a post COVID-19 world, we’ll all need to think differently.”
Indeed, the statistics to back this up are impressive. One example of this is Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS), who found that their neurodiverse testing teams were 30% more productive than the others. Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive of Ambitious about Autism, says “The competitive advantages of a neuro-diverse workforce are well evidenced. Just some of the skills autistic young people can bring include attention to detail, creativity, persistence, loyalty, hyper focus and the ability to think differently. More than this, employers have also told us that hiring autistic candidates has positively impacted on the overall culture of their organisations, making other staff members feel comfortable and supported in disclosing health needs.”
Both Clare and Chris are keen to make sure as many employers as possible find out how they can gain through providing internships to young autistic people through the Employ Autism programme. In addition to this they also highlight the free training, coaching and support that companies can tap into to help them recruit, select, onboard and ultimately employ these individuals moving forward. “It’s a no-brainer” says Chris, “employers have nothing to lose and ultimately everything to gain from getting involved”.
So how did Ambitious about Autism set up its employment programme? The charity itself was founded by a group of parents of autistic children over 20 years ago. Clare explains that this resulted in the setting up of specialist multi-educational environments to help these children and others like them to thrive.
Following on from this, a Youth Council, made up of autistic young people themselves, was established to help promote projects, campaigns, surveys and resources to support other young autistic people. Employment soon became a key area of focus.
In 2014, an employer symposium hosted by Santander identified internships as the right vehicle to help these young people find their way into employment through being able to gain paid work experience, which also enabled companies to benefit from this relatively untapped source of talent. In return for companies offering these opportunities, Ambitious about Autism agreed to provide zero cost support to employers, working with Line Managers and recruitment teams to increase their understanding of autism and show them how to adjust how they work to support autistic candidates and employees.
Since then, the programme has now gone on to successfully find nearly 100 youngsters paid internships across a range of organisations including the Civil Service, Santander and Deutsche Bank, all of whom have benefited from their involvement. In fact, the initiative has been so successful that last year all the interns who took part in placements of eight weeks or longer through the programme were offered contract extensions or permanent roles, a testament to the value that they’ve been able to add to the organisations that have hired them.
Clare goes on to say that where full-time job offers have been made, employers have been impressed by the dedication, perseverance and lateral thinking of candidates.
“One of the things I wanted to do was to help unlock some of the potential that’s out there that’s been undervalued and overlooked. What I didn’t expect was the genuinely positive impact it has had on people in the business. They became better managers and leaders as a result, as well as feeling positive about the company they work for.” - Alistair MacCallum, CEO Kinetic
Earlier this year, Talk Talk partnered with Ambitious about Autism to support the North West Employ Autism programme launch, helping more young people make the successful move from education to employment on a national scale. As a North West headquartered recruitment company with a national footprint, we were keen to contribute to this valuable initiative which resonates so clearly with the company vision ‘to unlock the potential in all of us’.
I ask Chris about how he originally became involved in the programme, as it’s clearly something that is particularly close to his heart. He explains that as a youngster from an area of high unemployment, he originally fell out of education at the age of 15, before eventually being offered a job with Rullion. The experiences that have shaped him have led him to wanting to help disadvantaged young people and when he was offered the chance to become an Employee Autism Ambassador, he had no hesitation in saying yes.
Chris goes on to point out the value that our partnership can bring to the Programme, to employers, and ultimately to autistic young people looking to find a foothold in the world of work. Not only are we able to help expand the programme by working alongside our network of employers in the North West and beyond, but our recruitment expertise and knowledge means that we can help with the development of toolkits and resources to support them in becoming more confident with neurodivergent hiring processes. In addition to this, as a Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative (RIDI) 100 Partner, we’re also passionate about helping to break down the barriers to entry into employment, providing support and guidance to candidates as well as employers.
It’s clear that although there’s still much work to be done, the impact that Ambitious about Autism has had and the potential benefits to both employers and society as a whole are far reaching and positive.
Chris rounds off our interview by explaining to me that “Everyone is to some extent differently abled; neurodiversity is really a unique approach to thought. An approach that can impact productivity, quality improvement and innovation. I regularly hear companies wanting talent who can help them to innovate and who can ‘think differently’. I want to help them see that with some subtle accommodations, there is an entirely untouched community who can help these employers unlock their potential.”
To find out more about Employ Autism visit https://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/what-we-do/employment.