Dr. Catriona Stewart OBE writes of her personal experience in the field of researching autism and the discovery that she was autistic herself and how the news of auticon and Unicus joining together is a “beacon of progress” in terms of visibility for autistic people in the workplace.
While training for my doctorate, after an MSc looking at controversies around diagnosis and theories of aetiology of autism, I was taking a course run by my university and the National Autistic Society, when something “clicked” and I realised autism was personal to me
My PhD focused on autistic girls, their experiences of school and their mental health and wellbeing. A previously entirely neglected population, working with them, and their families, led to awareness of the many autistic women “out there” who had no-where to go, for advice, self-knowledge, community or support. I founded SWAN: Scottish Women’s Autism Network in 2012. Since then, I have met, and talked and worked with, hundreds of autistic women and girls.
There are many common experiences. Not achieving academic potential at school, for example. By the time they are 14/15 years old, many autistic young people will have a poor sense of identity, poor self-esteem and many will have serious mental health issues. These all limit their access to work that would would fit their inherent abilities, and their areas of interest. There are intersectionalities too, in terms of gender-based expectations. I personally have witnessed the amused, patronising dismissal, by well-meaning adults, of a bright 14 year old autistic girl’s ambitions to do well at STEM subjects with her aim of becoming an astrophysicist (she kept at it!)
Successfully navigating most recruitment processes to start with is a challenge. Autistic people may not do well at interviews, which expect rapid responses, understanding of inference, and, often, performing in a social context. At SWAN, we evolved a process that gave candidates pre-interview notice of questions and coaching, and the opportunity to prepare a presentation to a specific topic.
Once in work, autistic employees may excel at the work, being conscientious, talented, honest, creative, problem-solving, but are disadvantaged by the demands of the workplace, the sensory onslaught (lighting, noise, smells), unspoken rules, social expectations, hierarchies, unclear communication from line-management, and so on. None of these are about the actual work but they impact on the individual’s health and wellbeing, and their ability to contribute.
My own working life has followed a not untypical trajectory for an autistic woman of my background. I pursued a number of “careers”, all of which I excelled at in some ways, but struggled with in others, always to do with social expectations, and relationships with management – autistic people are often disadvantaged by their own honesty!
I have been aware of the work of auticon for some time now and have watched its progress with great and increasing interest. The news that auticon has joined in partnership with Unicus to create the largest autistic-majority company in the world is hugely encouraging and a beacon of progress. It is an important step towards a whole range of things, including increased visibility, enlightened, inclusive employment practices, the building of diverse organisations and healthy workplace environments.
Most important is a better understanding of the value in enabling autistic people to contribute their talents and expertise to society, and for autistic people to access the benefits of inclusion. Everyone wins.