Australians living with autism are being locked out of the workforce, while some of those who found paid employment say they have previously lost a job because they are on the spectrum, new research claims.
A study commissioned by autism peak body Amaze, and described as an Australian-first by its authors, surveyed the employment experiences of those living with autism and their carers, as well as attitudes towards autistic people in the workforce.
Released on Thursday, it finds 53.9% of the unemployed autistic people surveyed said they had never held a paid job, despite wanting to join the workforce.
Among those who were in part-time or casual work, more than half wanted to be working more hours than they currently did, according to the Centre for Health and Social Research and ACU study. The sample size was 1,297.
The most common barrier was a lack of support to find a job (32.6%), followed by being unable to attend interviews due to autism/anxiety (30.9%), and a lack of understanding from employers (29.2%). Only 12.9% said they did not want to work.
“The study revealed that there is gross underemployment for autistic Australians and that their abilities are underestimated and underutilised in the workplace,” the Amaze chief executive, Fiona Sharkie, said.
She said the unemployment rate for autistic people was 31.6%, which was three times the rate of people with disability and almost six times the rate of people without disability.
Sharkie described as “concerning” the finding that one in five people who have autism, or who care for someone who does, had lost a job in their lifetime due to their condition.
About one in 100 Australians live with autism. Among them is Kerry Chin, 29, who has worked as an electrical engineer in Sydney since 2012.
Chin said he was in the minority in that he had found a job straight after finishing university.
But he also struggled with job applications and was not surprised by the study’s findings. During interviews, he would appear nervous, he said, even if he was not.
“I keep myself calm by wearing wrist and ankle weights,” Chin said. “They’re a little bit more discreet but they do provide some comfort for me.
“The way we behave and communicate is not always well understood by other people. We are likely to … get in trouble where we aren’t intending to make things difficult for others,” he added.
Kate Halpin, a consultant at the recruitment agency Specialisterne, said while there were roles that were “stereotypically” more suited to people with autism, those on the spectrum could be placed into most positions.
Common jobs included work in IT, quality and assurance, data analytics, risk and finance, and engineering.
Halpin said some employers often believed taking on an autistic employee would be “too hard” but doing so could be as easy as allowing flexible hours and improving sensory conditions through lighting or noise-cancelling headphones.
“Individuals on the spectrum often have such a high work ethic,” she said. “We have to tell them to go home when they’re sick because they’ll come in anyway. They have really strong problem-solving skills, often paired with a low error rate.”
Halpin said her agency instead referred applicants to employers after a longer process that involved practical activities and tasks.
Chin said another factor for the unemployment rate was what he called the “double bind”.
“For many of us a professional job is the best bet,” he said. “But to get a professional job you need to get a good education [and] a lot of autistic people struggle in the education system. So by the time it comes for them to seek employment, options are limited.
“The jobs that don’t require as much education are also environments that treat us more harshly; therefore it’s a bit of a catch 22.”