Autism is a super power?
8th October 2021
Among other things, Greta Thunberg is known for proclaiming that her autism is a superpower and without that she would not be able to do what she does.
Greta Thunberg is not alone with these kinds of claims. Many people claim that it is their autism that helps them to excel at what they do.
Examples of autism ‘superpowers’ that we have come across include:
- An autistic car mechanic who can tell what is wrong with an engine just by listening to it.
- A building surveyor who can sense bad/faulty wiring behind the plasterboard.
- A nature walks tour guide who credits his autism for always being extremely well prepared and thus good at his job.
- An autistic person who can assimilate a large pile of written information into a coherent whole.
- An autistic polymath who can solve problems nobody else in their organisation can solve, even when it is not their department.
- An autistic employee who is so good at spotting patterns others can’t see, that his ability to spot fraud means the fraud team at his organisation have little to do when he is on holiday!
There are many other examples we could list. The above people are all able to hold down jobs (though often with difficulty) because their employers value their skills.
So you could argue that some autistic people have some unique and sometimes astonishing skills. However, examples and instances like the above, have led to the myth that all autistic people have a ‘superpower.’
We can assure you that the people we support do not have superpowers.
They have found it impossible to hold down jobs because of their autism and because they have no ‘superpower’ that makes an employer do all they can to keep them.
The people we support are normal people with normal skillsets. They have nothing to show a potential employer to make them stand out and therefore tend to lose out to someone with a similar skillset who does not have autism.
As they get older they become ever more at a disadvantage because they do not gain work experience to show a future employer.
A few have managed to obtain a job. But it rarely lasts long because of their autistic difficulties. Because they have no skills that make them stand out, it is too easy for an employer to replace them with someone else.
Occasionally, it turns out that the autistic person does not have the skills they thought they had and they are dismissed for that reason.
Other autistic people are naive to the number of reasonable adjustments employers can make, and expect more help at work that can be provided (not helped by the current mainstream obsession with the social model of disability).
Getting these autistic people into jobs is not easy. They are always at a disadvantage. We can verify their skills (and send them off to fill in any gaps), but we are not able to remove their autistic difficulties. For example, we are not able to fix someone’s sensory issues or improve slow processing to normal levels.
We wish there were techniques for doing this.
Many of these people have been through work program after work program run by various organisations, some with autism specialisms and some not. Each time they have been promised a job and each time nothing much happens except that what confidence they had is diminished and they fall into depression and/or anxiety ( or worse, pure hatred towards society).
It is not good for a person’s well-being to be repeatedly rejected and/or let down.
Pressure from the jobcentre staff (who often cannot see the autistic difficulties) does not help. All too often the autistic person is doing their best and they are simply not attractive to employers – or often there are plenty of other applicants who naturally shine much better at interview. Many of these people do not add enough value to an employer to make them attractive despite their autism.
What should be done? In a nutshell, nobody knows.
In the past, supported employment was an important part of creating an inclusive economy.
Would some kind of supported employment that enables people to gain experience with work and which acts as a stepping stone to mainstream work help? Maybe, but it would probably be of limited help because once an autistic people person is in a job, they tend to want to stay in that job. Change is just too daunting for many of them.
The Lighthouse Trust which is a charity in Leeds, UK, has had encouraging success with supported internships. This is where a business takes on several autistic people who come with the support necessary to help them be successful at their jobs. They have had success in getting people into employment this way, but:
- It is difficult to get employers to accept autistic interns, despite successes that other businesses have had.
- It is only available to school leavers who have an EHCP (Educational Health Care Plan).
But perhaps bringing back some form of supported employment is the best way to ensure that as many autistic people as possible can enter the workforce in a way that suits them.
There are charities who engage disabled people (mostly those with learning difficulties) in meaningful but not paid activities, which enable the disabled person to think they are making a positive contribution to society in some way. The fruits of their work go towards maintaining the support they receive.
Meaningful activities improve mental health and thus save money that would otherwise be spent on health services.
Like most things politically influenced, we may end up going full circle!