Autism revealed to be more common in the UK than previously thought

The Department of Workplace and Pensions (DWP) recently released a government-backed review at the end of February that has laid out a vision for culture changes in workplaces across the country to help those with autism start and stay in employment.

Setting out 19 recommendations to support autistic people to succeed in the workforce, it’s a review that has been long-awaited and needed by neurodiverse individuals and organisations alike across the UK.

The report highlights that less than three in 10 people with autism are in employment, despite many of these individuals stating that they would want to be, due to a lack of understanding of their needs and the stigma attached.

The new research suggests that as many as two-thirds (65%) of neurodivergent employees feared discrimination from their management, as well as 55% being concerned about this from colleagues.

Interestingly, the study also found that organisations struggled to accommodate their neurodiverse workforce, with 65% of employers citing that managers don’t know enough about making adjustments for neurodiverse people, and 69% stating that a lack of disclosure from neurodiverse staff is a problem they face.

The issue appears to be twofold, with employees not feeling safe enough to share details about their neurodiversity with their company, and employers and management feeling unable to support them if they don’t do this.

And with recent articles highlighting that the number of autistic people in England may be twice as high as previously thought, there is an urgent call for organisations to do more in their workplaces to support neurodiverse employees.

Virtual College by Netex, which is a specialist online-learning provider, with courses specifically about autism, has shared that its course ‘Understand How to Support Individuals with Autism Spectrum Conditions’ has seen a 412% increase in allocations from 2020 to 2023.

Alongside this, its ‘An Introduction to the Autism Spectrum’ course has seen a 68% increase in allocations between 2021 and 2023.

So, it’s evident that employers are making an effort to develop their understanding of autism, and how they can best support autistic employees at work, but the late government review reveals that more still needs to be done.

One of the key aspects of the review relates to employers and their current neurodiverse workforce. This is a critical part of the review, especially given that reports highlight that nearly four in 10 (36%) neurodiverse employees don’t feel that they are receiving support or guidance in their workplace.

In fact, the review highlights some shocking realities about how employers view neurodiverse employees, with a YouGov survey sharing that 34% of employers stated they thought an autistic individual wouldn’t be likely to fit into their team.

Beliefs like this may be acting as a barrier to helping neurodiverse individuals break into the workforce, as well as making it significantly harder for them to open up about their condition and needs to their employer.

Discussions with autistic employees and individuals detailed in the review found that the most important aspect of employment needs to be that neurodiverse individuals must have the platform to voluntarily share their conditions with their employer.

Interestingly, the report also highlighted that 60% of employers were worried that they would get the support for autistic people wrong, or that they didn’t know where to receive advice or support relating to employing autistic people.

Employers and management teams should actively seek this training for all employees, and also proactively continue to expand their knowledge and skills relating to neurodiversity in the workplace, to be able to better understand and support neurodiverse individuals at work.

Not just this, but this aspect of the review highlights that workplace environments can be particularly distracting to neurodiverse people, such as concepts like hot desking and bright lights or load noises causing sensory discomfort.

As such, efforts also need to be made to ensure that companies are considering how inclusive their workplaces are for all and to communicate with neurodiverse employees to better understand how their workplace environment can help them to feel comfortable and work optimally.

And as more neurodiverse people enter the workforce, there is a need to ensure that any training for employees is designed to be inclusive, especially as a survey reveals that 92% of candidates heavily consider the learning and development opportunities available when weighing up job offers.

Abi Holmes, Product Owner at Virtual College by Netex, comments: “As more workplaces roll out a range of learning and development opportunities to their employees, it’s as important as ever now to ensure that training courses and resources are designed to be inclusive and accessible to all.”

Virtual College by Netex feels that the government review appears to have carved out a path with core recommendations in place to support autistic people in the workplace and has been long awaited to guide employers in doing this. The company hopes that this will improve autistic employees’ experiences in the workforce in the UK in years to come.

The company’s Autism Awareness Course is designed to help support and understand those on the autism spectrum to develop learners' understanding and recognise the individual differences in neurodiversity.