Looking For A Job With Autism Made Me Feel Like I Was On The Scrap Heap

I dropped out of school due my autism, mental health conditions and difficulties with friendships and bullying in year eight — and have been playing catch up ever since.

Amy Walker is an Autistic advocate and founder of the Neurodiversity Works campaign

Originally published in the Huffington Post

Around 700,000 people in the UK are autistic and yet just 16% of autistic adults are in full time paid employment. Every year this employment gap costs the UK economy millions of pounds — and beneath this lies so many personal stories of frustration and wasted potential.

There are many barriers preventing young autistic people from accessing the world of work — from careers advice that isn’t up to scratch, to rigid interview processes and inflexible working practices of some organisations.

I had a tough time getting into employment. I dropped out of school due my autism, mental health conditions and difficulties with friendships and bullying in year eight — and have been playing catch up ever since. I wasn’t given any advice at school on what to do with my life, how to succeed with my disabilities or how I could benefit from services provided by charities that help with employability — I didn’t even know that these opportunities existed. I felt like I was on the scrap heap of society, with no prospects.

I got into college to study photography based on my portfolio and did well, despite having no GCSEs. I loved photography as my form of artistic self-expression, it helped to heal my trauma, and I wanted to be reaching all the milestones that peers my age were. But I would have studied any subject that would let me in at that point. After I graduated from university with a first-class degree, I realised that self-employment as a photographer was not a sustainable lifestyle for me. I felt like I was back to square one.

I started applying for lots of roles, had a few interviews but never clinched the role. When I asked for feedback, I usually would not receive a reply — when I did it was to say I’d been pipped to the post by a better candidate.

I was beginning to feel dejected when I discovered Ambitious about Autism’s Autism Exchange work experience programme. This programme gives autistic young people paid work experience opportunities at a range of big employers. My first placement took place at the Civil Service, and after this I secured a further three-month placement at m/SIX, a media agency which plans and buys media space for advertising.

I benefited from lots of support from Ambitious about Autism after completing the Civil Service programme — from looking over my CV and identifying where I needed to develop my skills to help with finding opportunities and access to the charity’s youth network for autistic young people — which all helped to develop my confidence.

The charity also works with employers to develop their understanding of autism and confidence in hiring autistic people. Before I started my second internship, my employer sent lots of information to me about the team I would be working with that made me feel much less nervous. I was also able to walk around the office and get to know my managers and explain the reasonable adjustments I would need — such as starting a little later so that I could miss the intense rush hour crush on the tube!

During my placement I worked closely with the company’s diversity and inclusion and learning and development teams, developing relationships outside the office and proving my skills and passion in this area. As a result I was able to secure a role within the diversity and inclusion team following my placement. Through my work experience I knew I was working for an inclusive company that wouldn’t judge me for my weaknesses and would support me to thrive through my strengths. This made me feel a lot less anxious in the interview about having to prove myself.

Since starting my role I have been pushing awareness of neurodiversity at work. I believe we still have more to do but having more neurodivergent employees will be a huge strength for us going forward. Different perspectives and voices create better work, and working in an accessible environment has a positive impact on everybody’s wellbeing.

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