Headshot photo of Thangam Debbonaire, MP, smiling next to a purple quote

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of chairing the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism’s inquiry session on employment. This inquiry session is one of six looking into different aspects of what has and hasn’t improved for autistic people and their families, since the introduction of the Autism Act 10 years ago.

Since being elected as MP for Bristol West in 2015, I have campaigned in Parliament and in Bristol for a truly autism-friendly UK. Last year I worked with the National Autistic Society to hold the UK’s first constituency surgery specifically for autistic people. Earlier this month, I reported on this initiative as part of the National Autistic Society’s first ever Understanding Autism training sessions for MPs in Parliament, attended by nearly 100 MPs, including government Ministers.

One of the areas I feel particularly strongly about is tackling the Autism Employment Gap. According to the National Autistic Society’s The Autism Employment Gap report, just 32% of autistic adults are in full or part-time work employment compared to around half of disabled people and 80% of all adults of employment age. This means far more needs to be done to ensure autistic people can find and remain in meaningful work.

In the inquiry session, I wanted the panel to explore why so many autistic people face barriers in finding or staying in a job. I was joined on the panel by Janine Booth (an autistic trade unionist), Leo Capella (an autistic access specialist) and Alex Burghart MP. We heard from a number of autistic witnesses and others who support autistic people to find and keep work.

It was really clear throughout the session that workplaces as a whole need to change, rather than expecting autistic people to do all the work to fit in around their employer.

Witnesses agreed it’s important to recognise barriers in society and the workplace that often stop people from finding or staying in work, and what the Government and employers can do to reduce these.

There was a definite sense that we need to think more broadly about employment and expectations of work in general, which could mean changing how we understand full-time work and the provision of flexible working. This could be better for everyone.

Roxanne Hobbs argued that flexible working hours should not just be an option for autistic people but should or could instead be considered for all employees. Janine Booth, from the RMT, argued that this and other changes could make a positive difference to non-autistic as well as autistic people.

During the session, witnesses said more needs to be done to improve employers’ understanding of the benefits of hiring autistic people because of the different skills and perspectives they can bring. But it’s also important for employers to understand that all autistic people are different, and so are their strengths as well as the areas they need more support. To better support people to remain and thrive in their work, we need employers to listen to their employees’ specific needs – which could be working from home or coming into work later in the day to avoid busy commuting times. Many of the witnesses spoke about concerns that autistic people have about disclosing that they’re autistic and fearing to ask for reasonable adjustments to be made.

Some of the discussion was about the value of traditional recruitment methods such as interviews – many jobs are not well tested by this method. Considering different methods could benefit autistic people but also be good for businesses as they are more likely to recruit the right people for a job.

A really important lesson from the session is that the Government needs to know how many autistic people are in and out of work across the UK. How else will they know if their policies are working or not? This is why I support the National Autistic Society’s campaign for autism to be measured in the Labour Force Survey.

We touched on many important points in the session. Our next step will be bringing this all together in a report we’ll be publishing later this year. The report will be particularly important because our findings will feed in to the Government’s new autism strategy, to be launched later this year.