Autism, COVID Restrictions and Employment
16th October 2020
We have been under restrictions because of COVID-19, for nearly 7 months now and there is no sign that these restrictions will end, despite COVID being downgraded from a high consequence disease back in March (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/high-consequence-infectious-diseases-hcid).
Many of us are aware that this is having a serious impact on the employment situation. Many businesses are closing or going bust, with the loss of swathes of jobs. Many of the businesses that are managing to survive are making people redundant. The unemployment rate now stands at 4.5% and is set to rise further.
How might this be impacting autistic adults in particular?
The full-time employment rate for autistic adults of working age was around 16%, so already very low. This proportion is likely to drop.
Some autistic people are thriving in their roles due to the social pressure often associated with normal office working being lifted. Social interaction can be very exhausting for people with autism and a reduction in an expectation to do be around lots of people frequently might be reducing their stress in general and enabling them to perform better at work.
In fact, it has been found that some autistic children are performing better with schoolwork and are less distressed as a result of school closures, likely due to the reduced amount of time they spend around other children and adults.
But like many people in general, autistic and neurodiverse adults who do have jobs are being made redundant. Firms will keep only the most immediately productive and valuable employees who can be flexible about their roles. We already know of autistic adults who would normally be valuable employees who are being let go because they currently (perhaps temporarily) require more supervision or management time to implement reasonable adjustments.
Employment rules have changed, and I have been told that the Employment Tribunal is being more lenient with employers. It makes sense; the Employment Tribunal may be more likely to find a normally unfair dismissal reasonable in the current circumstances. Discrimination against disabled employees may be more likely to be a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’, which is part of the legal test for whether an employer’s conduct was in fact unlawful or necessary discrimination.
In addition, Employment Tribunals clearly have their work cut out. They currently have a 40,000 case backlog and hearings are now being scheduled for 2022. So it will take an incredibly determined employee to get through this. Not to mention the hybrid hearings being held with some participants in person and some being on video links. This could further stress autistic people out and put them off from seeking legal redress to unfair treatment by their employer.
There is also uncertainty around what is going on, what further restriction are going to be placed on the population – and thus which jobs are most likely to be viable in the short term (probably tech, pharmaceuticals, supermarkets, delivery drivers, logistics). But this is a problem if you are not qualified to do these jobs, or cannot do them because of disability. For example, working in supermarkets stacking shelves, on the tills or just as customer service representatives is not feasible for many autistic people because of sensory issues.
Those who have been assigned to the various work programmes to get them into work, now stand even less chance of getting work: any company recruiting will now have a large group of well-qualified and experienced people to choose from. Those with autism or other forms of neurodiversity will now have to shine out even more from the crowd and really excel at their job. There may be exceptions to this: tech companies looking for programmers will probably still struggle because of the specialist nature of the work and the fact that there is very steep learning curve to learn to program.
Those who have been made redundant are perhaps in a better situation because they have work experience. But they will also still have to shine out well above their competition – and be able to sell themselves. Selling themselves is something most people struggle with, but autistic people appear to struggle even more – especially (as we have seen) at interview.
On the plus side, unemployed autistic people may be less likely to ‘stand out’ negatively for being unemployed in the first place against the droves of unemployed people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
But thinking longer term, can the events of the last few months be an opportunity for progression?
Could this be an opportunity?
Some companies may see this as an opportunity to get rid of underperforming or difficult employees, to become more efficient. They may downsize now, hope to weather the storm while consolidating and plan to be in a good position to grow once (if?) the COVID restrictions are over.
Perhaps as part of this they could modify their recruiting practices to recruit from a wider tool of talent in the future? Perhaps this forced change to our workplaces and working habits might be the perfect opportunity to uphaul the current traditional ways of recruiting and working, in order to make way for talented people who would otherwise lose out? People who have taken a untraditional approach to acquiring skills – or perhaps those who would excel at an apprenticeship.
It might not be the right time for companies who are in distress as a result of the very difficult few months we have faced. But it might, for some companies, be a good time to review policies and processes, look at where the skills gaps are, and plan how to benefit from the potential gains of employing people with autism and other forms of neurodiversity.