‘Sifting out the autistics’: Why recruitment needs to change to consider those with autism

By Helen Jeffries

Thursday June 16, 2022

It’s easy to overlook prejudice against autistic people, including in recruitment processes.(Prostock-studio/Adone)

You’re not prejudiced against disabled people, I’m sure.

But what would you think if you were sifting candidates for a job and found a personal statement where the candidate mentioned they were autistic?

You might be a bit worried, mightn’t you? You’re recruiting one person to your team – maybe a manager or leader – and your success partly depends on who you hire.

You’ve heard autistic people have communication difficulties – certainly, your friend’s autistic child seems prone to causing disruption in school. Your team have been through some tough times with the pandemic – you wouldn’t want to inflict someone with no people skills on them, would you? And your team’s work is fast and high profile, so it probably wouldn’t be fair to the autistic person to put them in that situation, would it? Especially as you don’t really know that much about autism, so wouldn’t know how to get the best out of them.

So, all in all, the kindest thing would be to just sift that person out and move on to the next one, wouldn’t it?

Well, no. Obviously that would be a horribly prejudiced thing to do. But it’s perfectly understandable how a busy person could slip into that thought process. People under pressure recruit people who are like them – whom they are confident will be able to support them to succeed.

What they don’t want are unknowns, risks and potential difficulties – not in these difficult post-pandemic times (or indeed ever). And it’s always easy to rationalise rejecting a disabled person as ‘protecting’ them (or your team) from something stressful or difficult.

I drew on several autistic stereotypes above. Clearly, autistic professionals don’t cause disruption in the workplace like a child might in the classroom, and it’s a terrible misunderstanding to suppose that we don’t have people skills because we don’t always communicate as you would expect.

Equally, I and several other autistic people known to me have been working in very fast, high profile and high-pressure jobs in the past few years, so there’s no reason to think an autistic person can’t. We may need a few reasonable adjustments – but that is the way of things with disabilities.

Deciphering autism

To be fair (autistic people tend to be fair-minded), what a manager might reasonably fear is that with an autistic colleague they’d have to state what they actually mean, rather than hinting at and expecting them to read between the lines.

Sometimes saying what we actually intend means confronting realities we’d rather dodge. As civil servants, we’re very good at using euphemisms to cushion painful truths, and an autistic teammate can make everyone confront the elephant in the room.

Well – I’m that autistic teammate, and I’m inviting you to confront the painful truth parodied in my first paragraph, that sometimes the path of least resistance is to reject the autistic candidate because of prejudice.

Over the past few months, I found myself seeking a new civil service role. My work on COVID-19 had come to an end, so I applied for a great many jobs across a range of organisations where I had relevant skills and experience.

In all of those applications, I mentioned my autism – I’m rather proud of the advocacy work I’ve been doing in the last two years, and I’ve even won an award which I wanted recruiters to know about.

Some colleagues suggested I would do better not to mention my autism, but that didn’t feel like the right thing to do to me – it would feel like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation. I found myself sifted out again and again; probably I wrote some rotten job applications!

To disclose or not to disclose

Everyone else seemed to be succeeding more easily, though, and I began to worry about disclosing my disability.

Maybe it was chance, a difficult recruitment situation, or a bit of bad luck that meant it took me several months to find my new (excellent) role; that isn’t the point.

The point is that my confidence took a knock and I came to believe (rightly or wrongly) that my disability made things harder for me. I would love to have confidence that I was imagining things, but I don’t – yet.

Setting my personal case aside, do think about how you personally would react if you saw ‘autistic’ in a job application.

I’ve internalised the anti-autism prejudice so much that I fear I might even sift the autistic person out myself, knowing how hard it would be for them to flourish. So I’m not claiming any moral high ground.

But perhaps if we’re all a bit more aware of those assumptions and stereotypes, and challenge them when we see them, we might begin to break down the stigma. I’d like to get to a point where I am 100% confident that I wouldn’t get rejected because of my disability and where my autistic friends and colleagues no longer feel they should hide their disability in applications.

Ask yourself: if you were sifting an autistic candidate how, honestly, would you react?

This article is republished from Apolitical.


A letter from the autistic colleague you didn’t know you had

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