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Autism and Employment in Academia

An important aspect of the research of The Critical Autism and Disability Studies (CADS) research group at LSBU covers understanding and addressing barriers faced by autistic people in relation to gaining, keeping and progressing in employment in academic roles in our universities.

Unemployment and under employment of autistic people generally is well documented and my view is that this represents a huge and unnecessary waste of talent which frustrates me massively. Employment is a broad church and autism is a broad spectrum and there are so many roles in which autistic people could excel given the opportunity. I am focussing here on the employment of autistic academics in research positions in UK universities.

Research roles generally are often dependant on short term funded projects of a year or less. This unsettling situation is less than ideal in relation to career stability and stability is an important condition to enable autistic people to thrive.

My position is that many of the characteristics associated with the ideal employee are characteristics associated with autism. Autistic people are typically extremely focussed, particularly around topics which spark and enable the development of an in-depth interest. Thinking about graduate level employment, including work in academia, such quality is potentially incredibly valuable.

Reliability, thoroughness and hard work are associated with autism, but these excellent attributes can lead to overworking and burnout especially alongside trying to navigate convoluted impenetrable administrative systems without adequate induction.

I believe that the university sector could do better in this regard and in relation to autistic student experience. Prior to gaining academic work traditionally the employee will have progressed successfully as a student and achieved a doctorate which includes the socially challenging ordeal of the viva. A doctoral viva is inherently stressful but making the process more predictable can alleviate anxiety.

Academically highly capable autistic university students potentially face many obstacles along this road which are not to do with their motivation and capability around learning. Many of these relate to managing complex administrative processes without adequate induction into how they work. Prioritising can be a challenge especially if some aspects of the course feel deeply interesting and others are experienced as a bit dull and pointless. Mentoring can help with navigation and planning but clear communication and transparent expectations are key.

Processes around recruitment do not necessarily play to autistic strengths especially if they rely heavily on socially demanding interview situations. Autistic styles of communication can be misinterpreted as a result of the unconscious bias of panel members who do not necessarily understand that things like making eye contact are not necessary requirements of research roles.

Processing time is necessary for autistic candidates to form an optimal answer, and this can be misinterpreted as having an insecure grasp of the topic. The same concerns are present in the doctoral viva situation as well as the job interview. Open-minded well-informed panels and examiners would help a great deal. Thinking carefully about the space to reduce the stress of sensory overload and providing questions in advance to all candidates is a good idea. Alternatives to interviews are possible, such as asking the candidate to complete a set of tasks which directly relate to the role.

In CADS which is located within the Research Centre for Social Justice and Global Responsibility (SJGR) at LSBU we are committed to ensuring that our funded autism research is conducted by autistic researchers. We do all we can to make recruitment work effectively and to create a supportive workplace. The situation is by no means perfect and the main factors out of our control are that research contracts are generally fixed term and universities are complex and often unpredictable places. We are conducting research with a view to making recommendations which aim to move towards fairer employment of autistic academics. There are various papers on our website on this theme many of which have been co authored by autistic academics. CADS also supports the work of The Participatory Autism Research Collective (PARC) which is autistic led and focussed on researcher development, autistic peer support and opportunities for fair employment of autistic researchers who have plenty of opportunities to give of their expertise for free but few chances to gain, thrive and progress in paid academic work.

The Equality Act (2010) is relevant to the university sector, and we could do better with these particular equalities dimension.

Nicola Martin, Interim co lead of the SJGR Research Centre at LSBU