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Autism and unemployment

If employment prospects for young people generally are grim, for those with any kind of disability they are desperate. And worse still if that disability is autism. 

When the Office for National Statistics released a report on outcomes for disabled people in February this year, it showed that only 22 per cent of autistic adults are in any kind of employment. 

The report itself – the first proper analysis of employment among people with autism – was the result of years of campaigning by the National Autistic Society. “This is a shocking figure, which is even lower than previously suggested in surveys our charity has run,” it said in response.

“We are really worried that out of all disabled people, autistic people seem to have the worst employment rate. While not all autistic people can work, we know most want to.”

That willingness to work was obvious when Workers spoke to two young people with autism about their experiences finding work. George and Idris* are both Londoners in their 20s, and as they sat in a café in north London they described a ramshackle system made up of numerous separate charities focused on the needs of young people with disabilities, but each with its own way of working.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not just cut down on job opportunities, it has made it harder for people like George and Idris to put across their skills and their willingness to work. “When the Jobcentre tells you about a vacancy, you just send off a CV,” said Idris. “For me it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t fit in with how I interact with the world. I need to meet people and adapt. Online is not like that.”

The lack of any formal support for gaining employment makes things worse. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” says George.

When he can find work, George does casual shifts for a company in the security industry. “Anywhere the company can make cuts it is doing so,” he says. 

One example is ThumbTec, a technology where a fingerprint rather than a security guard confirms an ID. That can be combined with “soft” (remote) monitoring via CCTV whereby someone sitting in, say, Glasgow can provide access to workers in a building in London. And, as George notes, security is only one of many industries where technology is replacing human beings.

Before the pandemic Idris worked on a zero hours contract as a cleaner in a football stadium. He reckons that the work won’t come back, at least not in that form. “They don’t need casual workers like me [whom they have to train],” he said. Instead, the work will be outsourced to a professional cleaning company.

Things had anyway become much harder after the financial crisis of 2018, which wiped $7 trillion off the value of global stock markets. As the pandemic comes (hopefully) to an end, people generally assume things will improve, but from where George stands that’s just wishful thinking. “Actually it’s making things worse: employers are even keener to make cuts,” he says.

* Names have been altered to preserve anonymity.

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