What exactly is neuro-diversity? Dee Nic Sitric, founder of the community interest education and training company (CIC) Autism Champions, describes this highly positive concept of autism. She looks at how autistic people - many undiagnosed - make such a large contribution within the teaching profession. And she shows how autism awareness training can benefit colleges and improve job chances for the many thousands of able, autistic people who can’t find work because of employers’ lack of understanding.
Jack Kilday is among the fortunate one in five autistic people officially diagnosed with the condition who are employed. But the overall number of autistic people in work could be around 30% or more, according to the founder of Oxford-based education and training community interest company Autism Champions, Dee Nic Sitric. “Many people, including a huge number of teachers in schools and colleges, just don’t realise they are autistic.”
“Look at Oxford where we are based - it’s a hub of incredible neuro-divergence: Oxford University, all the science research labs around here and the incredible arts scene. It’s just amazing there is so much autism around here. People say it’s one in 100 but I’d say more like one in every 30 - or more!"
Dee, who counts herself as neuro-diverse, believes autistic people see the world through a completely different brain: “The autistic brain is incredibly astute at picking up things a non-autistic human brain does not see. Autism affects how autistic people interact with and experience the world around them. This is highly individualised to the people themselves and the environments they find themselves within.”
In the FE sector, which covers so many different industrial disciplines, specialisation is widespread and “that’s a real positive for autistic people because they do get so much into their chosen field; their expertise is usually incredible, their passion for their area is outstanding; and their willingness to go above and beyond for their subject is really powerful.”
"Autistic people are incredibly honest, loyal and moral, with a strong sense of equity and fairness. But if they are not given any real autonomy by a college, their work can become a massive struggle (I’ve personally found it quite difficult to not be my own boss and that is probably because of my own neuro-divergence). So the task for FE colleges is creating a balance between autonomy, having a routine that autistic staff know, and managing expectations.”
For Dee, it’s not so much about getting more autistic people into the workplace but how to work with them. “When people behave in certain ways it’s seen as challenging behaviour, so why not replace the word ‘behaviour’ with ‘communication’," she says. “It’s their communication, not their behaviour, that’s difficult.” It should be down to colleges and schools to change attitudes and learn how to communicate with autistic staff.
For instance, when an autistic person is applying for a job, it’s really important that they know what resources are available to help them do the best job they can. “Autistic people can struggle to process change. Whenever I make a regular work visit to one autistic school teacher, I send her an advance list of what I’m going to do when I’m in school, who I’m seeing and how long I’m staying so I don’t throw her off her stride. Before I did this, her teaching was unaffected but her self-confidence was dented.”
As an autism champion, Dee argues colleges and schools need to start 'front-loading' autistic candidates for interview: “They need information, clear communication about what’s going to happen, who they are likely to meet, what the building is like, what does the interview room look like - all that kind of detail that reduces anxiety. Only then will you get the best version of that person applying for a job that they obviously think they can do and where they have something to give.
“Whereas we'd provide a physically disabled information before an interview to locate disabled parking and lifts to get them to the right floor, an autistic person is just expected to turn up and be the best person they can be - yet they can’t because they carry all that anxiety. The general public don’t really know what autism is.
“For me it’s not so much about getting more autistic people into the workplace but supporting those who are already there and educating others. It’s about changing people’s perceptions - that autism is just another way of being human. If you think you are autistic that’s great and we’ll work around what you need to be able to thrive.
“It’s supporting them to make a plan, look up the institution online, visit the place, call someone at the college and say ‘I’m autistic, I’m looking to do an interview for this job, I think I’d be very good at it but this is what I’d need - someone to walk around the campus to explain how the college works, certain information via email to give me more details about the job, what I’d be expected to do . . . It’s warning the college that as I am autistic I might need a break halfway through the interview, or I might ask to do the first half of the interview online so I can see the people and know what is expected of me and then come in for the second half.”
It’s all about lowering a person’s anxiety level, says Dee. When autistic candidates get anxious, their ability to communicate goes way down, while their sensory needs become heightened and this change can then overwhelm their thinking process during the interview itself. Colleges just need to be aware of autistic people’s hypersensitivity and allow for it.
And everything doesn’t stop if they do get hired. They’ll want to know that they can actually do the job after they start. Like a newly qualified teacher, autistic staff need a mentor to check in regularly to ask how they are doing, what’s working well, what needs adjusting. Is there anything they find difficult?
In fact, Autism Champions are planning a new Oxford-wide, awareness-raising initiative starting this autumn across FE colleges and schools. “We aim to get colleges and schools to identify that it’s not just young people who are autistic but also staff,” says Dee. “We want them to understand how making small, reasonable adjustments can make all the difference.”
Autism Champions is on a working group currently redefining how autism is seen across Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, reframing it as a relatively common neurological condition usually associated with normal IQ rates and representing natural variation in functioning. The CIC will also be part of a planned county-wide strategy bringing sectors together, including education, health and social services, to create an up-to-date, agreed-upon framework in Oxfordshire around autism. Oxford City College is already starting to adapt how it works with autistic people and the aim is also to link up with Abingdon & Witney College and other local FE settings. It just takes time to find people willing to see things differently. Watch this space.