Industry

22 AUG 2022

CHAMPIONING AN AUTHENTIC AUTISTIC VOICE

Ahead of ACE’s Building Inclusivity roundtable on neurodiversity on Wednesday 7 September, James Ketchell interviews Gabriel Herman of Aspierations.

Gabriel Herman has been championing an “authentic autistic voice” within the world of business for the last six years as chairman of Aspierations.

“Aspierations is a social enterprise for people with high-functioning autism who can survive - and thrive - in the business world. Their valuable skill sets present differently and need to be understood and appreciated by recruiters and management. At the moment, they’re not.

“Neurotypicals [normative thinkers] have been driving the discussion in this space since the second world war, and quite frankly they’ve got it wrong. The proof is that of all disabled communities in the UK, the least likely to be employed is the autistic community.”

Herman stresses the importance of a holistic approach to correct this wrong.

“We have to work with both sides. We work with the autistic community where everyone is an individual and with organisations to help them become autism fit’n’friendly. Potential employers are advised about the reasonable adjustments that autistic candidates are legally entitled to.”

In many cases an ‘autistic’ CV will look sparse when compared to the career history of a neurotypical and therefore a strong personal statement is required to highlight transferrable skills. The condition itself doesn’t make extracting this information easy.

“At the moment it’s a very labour-intensive process. We’re exploring how to create a digital bridge between the autistic community and autism friendly employers which will hopefully make things easier. Aspierations is looking for more businesses to help make this a reality, so I’d urge anyone reading this and thinking about how it might work for their company to get in touch!”

Seizing the employment opportunity

With the National Autistic Society estimating that one in 100 people in the UK is on the autistic spectrum, it is a condition which affects people in many different ways. However, the opportunity for employment within our industry from the high-functioning autistic community is potentially huge.

The increasing importance of big data, programming and AI skills in the design and management of the built environment means our sector is one that naturally lends itself to the employment of high-functioning autistics.

Herman explains that while they may have a “heightened” skillset in areas such as data analysis, programming and creativity, they often lack the generalist skills that employers see as essential. This is something which could be addressed with additional support.

“The current approach is that everyone needs to have generalist skills, but could we tailor job roles more precisely and put in place a strong and supportive management culture around that role which takes away the stress of everyday working?”

While some employers may traditionally have shied away from the expense and complications in tackling the issue, Herman is convinced that “You can only get truly creative third way thinking if you actively encourage autistic people into your company. it won’t happen otherwise.

“Most if not all organisations already have neurodiverse individuals there. That’s not to say they are thriving. It is a hidden condition for most.”

Since its inception in 2016, Aspierations has been helping employers in a number of ways to shift their culture to nurture this creative third way thinking and support the neurodiverse in their workplaces – from providing training for HR professionals and management, to supporting specific recruitment exercises, and consulting on creating autism friendly work environments.

Reimaging the workplace

While the pandemic demonstrated that working from home works for many, Herman has mixed views on the impact for the autistic community. “Many thrived in the pandemic and it was helpful in many regards. The pandemic gave many a taste of what it’s like to be autistic by being stuck at home and unable to socialise. However, in the rush to return to post-pandemic norms, we need to ensure we don’t go back to old habits and lose the more caring side that employers showed for all communities.”

With many businesses reimagining their post-pandemic workplace and ACE members among some of those helping to refurbish and rethink workplaces across the country, there is a unique opportunity to “build back better” and create offices which can be truly welcoming to the neurodiverse. 

Herman added: “I’d like to see the emergence of a lifestyle office where not only are we encouraging the autistic community into work and to be around other people, but coaxing them into a very soft social setting. This could be very therapeutic for the autistic community and could be encouraging for everybody in terms of bringing people together. A ‘WeWork Plus’ type environment which is focused on the neurodiverse. With a great deal of care we could get this right.”

Staying positive

The challenge for the autistic community is significant but Herman remains upbeat. “It’s a hidden community in the labour pool which once it’s exposed will be of benefit to your industry and society. Employers with talent shortages need to be aware that this could be part of the solution.

“This is why we’re delighted to be involved in the Association for Consultancy and Engineering’s (ACE) Building Inclusivity campaign, to help spread the word. We’ve made lots of progress towards the creation of an ‘autistic labour market’ and we have more and more companies engaging with us. It’s time for the built environment to get on board.”

Gabriel Herman is chairman of Aspierations. He is a panellist on ACE’s Building Inclusivity roundtable on Neurodiversity on Wednesday 7 September 2022 at 12.00pm. Book your free place now.

Click here to find out more about ACE's new ED&I campaign, Building Inclusivity.

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