There has been a variety of discussions in the media over the years about disabled people on benefits. The tone of these discussions is wide-ranging: some are more sympathetic, but many seem to vilify those on benefits. And what they often fail to mention, crucially, is the reason why disabled people often require state-aid in the very first place; and it is not as simple as “because we cannot work”.
In February, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that only 22 per cent of autistic adults are in anyform of employment. For context: employment includes full-time contracts; temporary contracts; freelance employment; and, part-time jobs.
A variety of factors may account for this discrepancy. One reason, for example, may be that job descriptions often feature a series of soft skills (teamwork, verbal communication skills etc.) even if they are not essential for the job itself. Additionally, job application forms and job descriptions are often vague, with complex or abstract language, which can disproportionately disadvantage autistic individuals. Such language is a related factor in the relative inaccessibility of GCSE exams for many students with a disability. And the undeniable positive correlation between exam results and employment opportunities only emphasises the need for effective, progressive change toward a more inclusive system.
But these challenges are only the precursor to one of the most difficult aspects of an autistic jobseeker’s life: the dreaded job interview! According to the National Autistic Society, the diagnostic criteria for those with Autism are constituted by a variety of common social-communication difficulties. These include: (i) not understanding abstract concepts; (ii) needing extra time to process answers; (iii) intense social anxiety; (iv) behaving in ways that could be interpreted as socially ‘inappropriate’; (v) a sensitivity to bright light, loud noises, background noises, smells etc. How many of those criteria are key features of your typical in-person job interview? I would say all of them!
During the perpetual lockdowns I have had five volunteering interviews, all digital interviews. And the experience of this new interview medium has been, to say the least, pleasant. Admittedly, I had never had a job or volunteering interview prior to the pandemic, so I have no standard to which I could compare my experiences. However, I wish to argue that, in the pursuit of the progressive change I believe is required in our society, digital interviews should be a required option for autistic jobseekers.
Logistical planning in digital interviews
For one thing, it makes logistical planning easier. Attending anything in-person requires substantial planning: things such as booking the taxi or researching the bus timetables, and the stress of getting ready and deciding how early is too early arrive at the venue. Tasks which may seem simple enough, but with the executive disfunction quite common in autistic individuals these tasks become intensely difficult. In comparison, a virtual interview is quite simple: test out your camera and microphone, decide which smart shirt to wear, and focus on preparing your answers to common interview questions. And not to mention that this makes planning for the organisation easier too.
Managing the more overtly autistic traits in digital interviews
Another benefit is that the virtual interview supports in ‘masking’ more overtly autistic traits; by making them easier to hide or, at the very least, manage. The webcam allows for the possibility to hide any ‘stims’ that can occur below the waist (finger picking, using a fidget toy etc.). And the fact that it is a virtual eye rather than a real one means it is slightly easier to maintain eye contact: just stare at the web camera. Similarly, conducting the interview from the home eliminates any sensory difficulty which may arise from an unfamiliar environment. This allows for a more concentrated focus on the interview and answering the questions, and less on managing any difficulties which may otherwise have arisen.
And a final justification (perhaps the only one required): it is technically required by the law. One of the protected characteristics under The Equality Act 2010 is disability. Under the Act, public services, employers, education providers and businesses are required to take positive steps ‘to remove the barriers’ faced by those with a disability. This involves ‘reasonable adjustments’ in order to achieve the goal of true equality. For example, one of the three different things people or organisations may have to do make it easier for you to access or do something is to ‘change the way things are done’. Some people or organisations may have a certain way of doing things which makes it more difficult for a person with a disability to access or do something: for example, in-person job interviews and vague job application forms.
In the age of universal, virtual connectivity, the real question is, ‘Why are we so rigid?’ Is it not reasonable, rather desirable, to suggest that those who are placed at an unnecessary disadvantage through no fault of their own be granted support, a virtual interview, on the basis of the Equality Act – that we change the way things are done? Many ‘high-functioning’ autistic people are able to thrive in the workplace, provided that they are in an environment conducive to their needs.
It is no coincidence that the jobs in which autistic people thrive are often within the hard sciences or mathematics. These are the workforces that value employees with a meticulous attention to detail and a desire for accuracy and precision; traits highly associated with autistic individuals. Adapting the job-seeking process to be more accommodating of autistic people, and a diverse society more generally, will no doubt lead to more and more ‘high-functioning’ autistic people thriving within a range of other sectors; and a more diverse and representative workforce overall.