With thanks to Gabriel Herman for agreeing to be interviewed.
Could you give me a general overview of what Aspierations does?
Aspiration’s’ task is to help people with high functioning Autism or Aspergers syndrome get on the path to an aspirational career.
Could you give a general overview of how Aspierations help people into employment?
Initially, we thought we were going to be a recruitment company, a specialised recruitment company. Then we realised that that wasn’t going to work because our community is so small and we have ambitions to do all different kinds of careers. It would be almost impossible to find a position for each individual in big companies, so we rowed back from that, and we then focused on setting up the right environment. And by that, I mean making sure they were what we’d call Autism fit and friendly. To make sure that their recruitment processes were up to scratch in terms of getting Autistic candidates in, to ensure that once the candidate was in, they can thrive in the work environment and the work culture. So that was probably the second stage and the third stage, which we’re probably in right now. We say we’re doing that but we’ve got to regain the focus on the individual. This is why we’re currently working with universities and Autistic students in universities to prepare for job interviews, which will get them the job in the first place.
Regarding the interview process and what needs to change, I am aware that you conducted trials with Bath and Bristol University in conjunction with employers. I heard talks from individuals at Aspierations events about the benefits of informing employers about the interview process and how it changes things. What has been the impact on employment for students?
It’s a little too early to tell, as you know the Autistic community was the least likely of all the disabled groups in the country to be in employment, so there was a crisis before all this happened. We’re now trying to work out where the recruitment industry is now as we see virtual job interviews becoming more prevalent. We’re going to have to give the new skills to the Autistic students to make sure that they are ready for the new reality because what we suspect is going to happen, is that there is going to be a job shortage and therefore the competition for jobs increases and if the problem was bad beforehand it could be even worse now. We’re going to have to work out the skill sets they require and get them up to speed. On the more positive side, we think that there will be a call for compassionate capitalism, where companies will go out of their way to try to behave in the best way possible for the minority interests. We think there might be some latitude there to allow Aspierations to come into companies and do some really exciting work with them.
You have other areas of Aspireations that have gone on for longer; what kind of results have you had there?
Another aspect of what Aspireations does aside from work with Universities is awareness events. For these events, we go into companies and effectively host events for them to do with neurodiversity and bring them up to speed as to what’s going on out there. This is very exciting for a lot of companies who haven’t thought this through before. It begins to start a conversation and that conversation leads to a much better understanding of neurodiverse needs, particularly for neurodiverse staff members.
You talked earlier about the need to adapt to changes. Do you know how individuals on the spectrum have coped with working from home?
I think in this conversation, we have to talk about pre-corona and possibly post-corona. I think the rules have completely shifted, and we have to reassess everything now. Before I was beginning to hear many companies, we’re thinking of shutting down their offices and starting to work from home. When they had that conversation with us, they said, and the top people to ask to work from home are the Autistic employees, and you might see a certain logic in that. However, I was very frightened by that attitude because getting Autistic folk into the workplace is to reduce social isolation. If they felt happier at home, that might not be the most holistic thing for them. They should have ownership over their decisions and not be characterised as people who would much rather work from home. I think it’s not necessarily a good thing. The other thing about working from home is that the day is not as structured. So, I don’t think it’s a good thing for the Autistic community. In terms of where we’re going, I think a lot of companies are now seeing the benefit of closing down their offices as they haven’t used them for months and things have been going quite smoothly for some companies and some industries, and they are quite attracted to the idea that they don’t have to send individuals overseas on 1st class travel. It’s quite cost-effective for them. I think what is going to happen is that there is going to be a halfway house. I believe there are going to be local offices smaller ones were, you will be asked to go to your local office, near to your home and I can see them having lifestyle opportunities there might be things like a squash court or a swimming pool, and you’ll be expected to work at a desk. You’ll be expected to socialise with people. You may even be able to socialise with colleagues in your own company. I think there is going to be a new halfway house, which actually could be quite attractive to Autistic folk, who can dip in and dip out of that as they choose.
Do you think the government could do more in terms of helping people with Autism? What do you think they could do?
I think the government is very good at listening, but it’s more problematic when it comes to doing anything. We have, and other agencies have tried to explain that there is great talent within the Autistic community, who are completely and utterly hidden from the labour market because the recruitment industry can’t find them and this is a tragedy because a lot of Autistic folk quite frankly know that they are clever. They know their true worth, but they have a lot of frustration when it comes to getting the right jobs. As a result that companies don’t benefit from their expertise. Companies are often all made up of the same type of person, and therefore they can’t have the internal discussion and debate of different thinking, which I think is a great shame. I believe many Autistic folk as you and I know can be very clear thinking in terms of systems so they can go into a company and say why we are doing this A process, B and C process. Why don’t we get rid of B because you get the answer with A and C. Therefore, potentially saving the company vast amounts of resources. I think this is a great mistake for the British economy. The government is also failing to understand that if you don’t put these people into work. These people who want to work, they can cope with work. The only other option is the NHS mental health service because there will be deep problems for the person who can’t get employment but knows desperately that they want to provide for society. Secondly, the amount of social security that has to be paid to them as well. I think the government is thinking very creatively, but they’ve got a lot to think about now. Whether Autistic folk will be a priority is yet to be seen.
Would graduates generally be un or under-employed? Also, how many of these people would be graduating in skills shortage areas? Thus, one could make a good case for upping the recruiting of them. When graduates don’t graduate in skills shortage areas, maybe it would be concentrating on transferable skills.
That question is problematic because we don’t know. Especially at the moment it would be hard to work out where skills will be needed in the British economy there will be some industries that are close to collapse for example in the cultural sector, particularly for something like theatre, we know that cinema might survive. But things will be very problematic for theatre. We know that IT will be a very popular industry very shortly as we all move towards computers and the virtual world. I think there was a feeling before all of this, and I believe this is an over generalisation, but it was that most people on the Autism spectrum were very good at the IT side of things. They knew how to work with computers and technology and all the rest of it and a lot of companies used to say that we want Autistic employees to help digitise our company it didn’t kind of make any sense. Still, it was a perception that because of how people on the spectrum think. It’s naturally assumed that they will be good on the computer side of things, but you and I know it’s much more subtle than that and that different skillsets within Autism are attracted to different industries.
Interestingly enough, music being one of them which makes sense as music is a system, what notes work well with each other. Sometimes, people are less ambitious with people on the Autistic spectrum because they just pigeon hole them too tightly. I think what I am saying is that the Autistic community isn’t any different from everybody else in the spread of their skill set and the range of jobs that could interest them.
There seems to be an improvement in that respect, as I’ve noticed more work trials in music and places like the media. It doesn’t seem to be all finance and IT, but I am unsure how many opportunities there are for Autistic individuals in different industries.
I think you are right; there are schemes, and some are more successful than others. Having spoken to people on the spectrum, there’s a bit of a problem with it:
- It has different value within an organisation. So, many organisations say we’ve got the intern they’ll be with us for a year, and then we’ll chuck them out. That I think is highly problematic why would we put our Autistic students in that kind of environment. I will not say it is abusive with a capital a, but it doesn’t feel great to me. And the other problem.
- People on the spectrum think they’ve got a job at the end. As they’re part of the system and as they’re in a company and they see the work environment, they’re almost schizophrenic; they know it is not a real job but also think it’s a real job. I think that kind of makes things very, very hard.
- The other question is, if you’re not going to giving a person a job at the end, how do you deal with that. Are you just throwing them back into the labour pool without any support at all, you’re giving them a taste of real employment, and then you’re taking it away from them again. I am not sure if that’s the right thing to do?
I wouldn’t mind a paid internship.
Everyone’s different; however, there is trouble in terms of the way the management operates. A manager won’t treat an intern paid or otherwise in the same way that they treat a permanent employee on the payroll. It can be quite challenging to work out what that working relationship is going to be. Also, how does the intern, interact with their colleagues, I think there is a difference between being an intern and being a paid employee. And I think unless that is really explained to a candidate, it can cause a problem.
Being a paid intern can be worse cause you think that a paid intern is closer to being a proper employee that; when it disappears, not only do you lose your pay but also lose your job, and it doesn’t lead to anything.