Social convention dictates that when someone is sad, you make them a hot beverage. Anyone who watches The Big Bang Theory will recognise these words of Sheldon Cooper, one of the best characters and programmes ever made. And the most positive representation of individuals on the autistic spectrum on TV. It continues to make me smile and laugh out loud which is incredibly important in these difficult times.
Autism is a condition which ranges broadly and is characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communication. For Sheldon, he understands the convention, and when to apply, but sometimes doesn’t fully grasp the reason why.
This week is autism awareness week. And given the current crisis it is probably more important than ever that we take note, raise awareness, and apply a high level of understanding.
Across the UK there are around 700,000 people who have an autistic spectrum disorder. Of which, only 15% of working-age adults are in full-time employment which is significantly lower than the average for all disabled people (53.2%). Despite this, 79% of disabled people with autism are not in employment but would like to be.
Like Sheldon Cooper, for many people with Autism, they excel in a very particular area. The most common areas being in mathematics, art, music, spatial and mechanical abilities. This is known as savant abilities, which are not just special; they are extraordinarily special abilities that cannot usually be duplicated by most other human beings. For Sheldon this, this area is science and more specifically, string theory.
Given the spectrum can vary so much, it is wrong to generalise all individuals with ASD to have the same traits, however it is fair to say a that recurring theme of a need for a level of routine it apparent. Over the last few weeks, in some cases days, for everyone working at the moment, routine has been blown to smithereens as organisations transition their operations to remote working, if working at all. For people with autism this has a disproportionate impact and can be extremely destabilising and runs the risk of people leaving the labour market never to return. A ‘new normal’ is critical. For most line managers the current environment is one of survival and this leaves a group of individuals increasingly vulnerable, at a time when they could add so much value with their analytical minds and approach.
The major disruption to normal life is equally difficult for customers on the autistic spectrum. Dealing with so many restrictions and changes – limited opening hours, queues, empty shelves – could put off the individual ever shopping again.
Purple Tuesday has shown just how far organisations had come to improve the customer experience for those people on the spectrum. Not only had ‘quiet hours’ become the norm for many organisations, but a deeper understanding that dedicated hours in the afternoon worked much better for people with autism than hours in the morning and so were changed to reflect this. Since the current crisis, it is highly likely that many organisations have had to abolish these hours as a temporary measure. My fear is these changes will be swept away and not necessarily first in line when the recovery starts.
It is so frustrating. With our partners Quarsh we were just about to pilot a new service to organisations – driven by demand – involving a review of policies and protocols and training of both hiring managers and line managers to support the targeted recruitment and retention of talented candidates who happened to be on the autistic spectrum – and seen as an asset to the organisation because of their condition. Again, I hope when the economic recovery starts, we can pick up where we left off to drive this forward.
People with autism – and the wider disabled community – can play a central and valuable part of the UK recovery. Use awareness week to review your emerging recovery plans, check in with your staff and your customers as you move to your ‘new normal’. If Sheldon was advising you, he would say the solution is so straightforward with no hot beverage needed on this occasion.