This is an interview with David, a young man with Asperger syndrome who was employed in the House of Commons on the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme.

School days

There were good and bad elements to my school days. 

I went to school and I behaved differently, therefore I was seen to be odd, eccentric, a freak. I was bullied and teased because of that and there was a sense of isolation. I didn’t make a lot of friends.

The positives were that I studied hard. I really enjoyed studying. People called me a geek, but that’s a term that didn’t make me as upset because… well, I still am a geek. I was also encouraged to develop my political passion, which was very good.

University

At university I faced a lot of challenges. At the start I got bullied and hassled and teased from students who didn’t quite understand that I was different. I was socially insecure and that was very challenging; particularly during classes, where I felt like I wanted to contribute.

As time went on I started to come out of my shell. I started to speak out in class. I gave presentations in class too. That started to make me more confident academically. I was always very good going into the library, reading up on stuff and writing essays on my laptop on my own. That was the easy part. But what was a big barrier to me and what I had to overcome was contributing in class and making the tutors confident that I was taking in what they were teaching.

So, I would say that social insecurity was a key barrier for me at university, which I did break down over time and which thankfully didn’t stop me getting a good degree.

Moving on

When I left university, my biggest worry was getting a job. That was the biggest difficulty and the biggest worry. I had to go on jobseekers allowance, I found this quite hard. But, it was actually by going into the job centre that I found the advertisement for the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme. Thankfully, my application for this opportunity was successful and I became employed in the office of the Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP.

Disclosure

I had no hesitancy writing about my disability on my application for scheme.

The questions asked about campaign work and whether I was politically involved. I had to mention that I was an autism campaigner. So, I did not have any hesitancy at all mentioning my condition on that application. 

I also knew that the scheme was looking for disabled candidates. That almost enabled me to believe that there was not a barrier in place. By them wanting to look for some disabled candidates it gave me the freedom to write about the condition in both a positive and negative way. I wrote about some of the negatives and the key positives that can come with the spectrum.

The positives I mentioned were that I’m very dedicated, very loyal, I work extremely hard and I’m passionate about politics. Autistic people usually are interested in one or two subjects often to an obsessive degree. Can I say I’m obsessed about politics? Well, I wouldn’t say I’m far off that. 

It’s often very difficult to write about negatives, or weaknesses, because you’re not sure if that’s going to lead to your application being rejected. But, I had to be honest and said that there are times when I do get very tense. If I make mistakes I usually get very upset with myself because I like high standards. I’m a perfectionist, therefore the slightest mistake can really kick off a bit of a reaction from me and I need reassurance from the people around me. I also mentioned that it can sometimes take some time for me to settle into a new working environment. But, just a bit of support can help a lot.

Working life

The placement enabled me to push myself and build skills in new and unexpected areas. Before the placement, I did not think I was good at public speaking. I had done a few presentations at university, in front of my classmates, but I did not think I had the talent for public speaking. But then, I organised an autism awareness event in parliament before the Easter recess. I had to do a public speech in front of parliamentarians, their staff and staff from the House of Commons including the Speaker of the House of Commons himself. That was a high pressure situation. I delivered a very good speech. When I sat down afterwards I remembered saying to myself… I’m pretty good at this public speaking thing. 

I gave two more speeches after that, one at an autism awareness event and another at an all party parliamentary group on autism. I was becoming a complete natural at public speaking. And that was a skill which I genuinely did not think I had. I can remember at university I was absolutely nervous and highly reluctant to speak in front of my classmates. And here I was now in Westminster giving speeches in front of MPs. It was almost like I was a different person. To have developed that skill has also meant I have become a much more confident and positive individual. 

An aspect to work which was a key difficulty for me was that there was very little structure.

No structure apart from the time I started, the time I finished and when I went for lunch. Things could happen unexpectedly. You always had to be prepared about that. There was uncertainty from day to day about what was going to happen. I struggled to deal with that at first. But I got used to that as my internship went on.

I coped by adding routine where I could. I came into work at 10 o’clock, had lunch at 12, and dinner at 5.30-6.00. I had that in my diary. That was my routine. Everything else, I had to keep a degree of flexibility. You had to keep that degree of flexibility because you just didn’t know what would happen in the office from day to day. I coped with it but I would have to say each individual would probably do things differently.

My biggest regret was probably not having many discussions around my condition at the start of my placement. I just told people as I went along. By the time the scheme ended I think everybody got a fair idea of how to support me. With hindsight, I think sitting down with everybody and having a detailed discussion about my needs would have been handy.

I hope that when I go into my next job that will happen. Hazel Blears MP said:

“I was impressed with David at our very first interview. He was earnest and passionate and had a clear sense of what he wanted to do with his life. When he worked in my office in London he was diligent, conscientious and had a real eye for detail. His written reports were excellent.

“This was the first time I had worked with someone with Asperger’s and my time with David really helped me understand his condition. We learnt as we went on what kind of support he needed, and I used the National Autistic Society’s website to research the kinds of challenges David might face and how I might make his working life in my office easier, like providing routine and structure and giving him reassurance in stressful situations.

“I was really proud of his achievements - like speaking in public - and it was wonderful to see him flourish and get a true sense of accomplishment. It was great for him to challenge himself and see just what he could achieve.

“I wish David every success for the future. His time with me has reinforced my view that everyone, regardless of their background, age or disability, can realise their potential and make a really important contribution to our society. If you are thinking of hiring someone on the autism spectrum, please be encouraged by the positive experience I had with David.”

Future plans

I hope to be as successful as I can possibly be. My ambitions are to get a good job, perhaps in the city of London, to get married, have kids and get a nice house. I think these are pretty realistic ambitions that most young people have. Ultimately, I do want to become an MP in the future. That is my main ambition, to try and get into the House of Commons.

As an MP, I would hope to show our society that people on the autism spectrum can do it. If they have the support then there is absolutely no reason why they couldn’t be extremely successful and become very good at what they do in their jobs.

I want to prove this to people because I think there are still people out there who hold negative stereotypes and that needs to be challenged. I feel like I have a duty, if I do become an MP, to challenge that stereotype. 

How employers can help

My message to employers would be that autistic people can make very good employees. They can be very loyal, very dedicated, very passionate and very hard working. They can give their 110% best. But they do need support and they may need encouragement and reassurance. To good employers that shouldn’t be a problem. That’s a key message.

Autism is not a condition that employers should be frightened about. With a little bit of investigation, a little bit of research, they’ll soon discover that autistic people have got good qualities which could really enhance their businesses.

I think it’s all about creating a workforce which is disability-friendly. Ultimately, it’s about having employers who value difference, diversity and don’t treat people who behave differently in a negative way. I also think it’s important to make people, from the management down, far more aware of autism. There are too many employees, I fear, who have got autism and have real difficulties at work because their fellow employees can’t understand why they behave differently. By raising awareness, at all levels of the company, the person with autism will be better understood and will feel positive, supported and confident in achieving their potential.

Message to jobseekers

The advice I would give to jobseekers on the autism spectrum is to keep fighting, keep positive and never give up. That would be my simple answer.

There will be barriers. You will have applications rejected, which can lead to a lot of distress. I’ve been there. I’ve been to job interviews and been turned down. It creates very difficult and challenging emotional experiences. It’s not good. But you have to keep going and keep positive, because ultimately if you persevere you will get that job you want.