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Let’s not forget about autistic graduates: Shining a spotlight on the disadvantage experienced by this growing group

  • 3 April 2024
  • By Keren Coney and Mark Allen
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Keren Coney, Research and Knowledge Director at AGCAS and a Careers and Employability Consultant at Liverpool John Moores University, and Mark Allen, Careers Consultant at Imperial College London. Keren and Mark are trainers for AGCAS and Ambitious About Autism and are previous authors of What Happens Next?, which explores the destinations disabled graduates in the UK.

Autistic graduates experience higher unemployment levels than all other disabled graduate groups. Those who are in work are less likely to be employed full-time, to be in secure employment, or to hold a role requiring a degree. These discrepancies were highlighted in AGCAS’s recent What Happens Next in Challenging Times report and emphasised in the Buckland Review of Autism Employment, also published in February.

As careers professionals who support autistic students to navigate the transition to employment, we know this gap is due to a myriad of reasons. From the ambiguous language of some job adverts to recruitment practices that assess a skillset that differs from that which is required in the job, autistic students face many potential obstacles on the journey to obtaining graduate employment. Fearing judgement, many autistic candidates are understandably disinclined to share their condition with recruiters, a process which usually forms the starting point to request adjustments.  Regularly, neither the applicant nor the recruiter is aware of the adjustments that could help level this playing field. 

To aid students with sharing information about their disability with prospective employers, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) launched the Student Adjustments Planner last November and plans to roll this out in universities in time for the next academic year.  While trials have shown that using the planner leads students to feel more confident in sharing information, it is still in an early form and we don’t yet know how this planner will be implemented in universities.  It is important that employers take responsibility for ensuring the accessibility of their recruitment processes and workplaces. The Buckland Review rightly centres on how employers should change their behaviour and practices in the direction of an inclusion by design approach and outlines various methods to enable this underused and unrecognised pool of talent to access the labour market. 

The Buckland Review also recommends that careers professionals in schools and colleges should have a strong understanding of autism to enable them to support autistic individuals.  The omission of careers professionals based in higher education providers means that action based on the review risks overlooking the support needs of autistic students and graduates. Similarly, many examples of effective initiatives delivered by university careers services to support autistic students were not fully captured or shared. Support ranges from tailored one-to-one support and autistic-specific careers and employability programmes to mentoring projects and supported internships.  Those practitioners in careers services who focus on employer engagement play an important role in advocating on behalf of autistic students and graduates, urging employers to adopt inclusive recruitment processes and accessible workplaces. 

The AGCAS Disability Task Group seeks to assist careers professionals in this important work by delivering training, creating resources and supporting members to share good practice.  There is an eagerness amongst careers professionals to develop their expertise in supporting autistic individuals, illustrated by the recent AGCAS training on supporting the employability of neurodivergent students and graduates selling out in record time. Due to this demand, this training will now be offered on a regular basis.

Despite the valuable efforts of many higher education careers professionals to provide effective support to autistic students, the findings of AGCAS’s What Happens Next in Challenging Times research make it clear that more needs to be done.  While acknowledging the good work conducted by some university careers services, Shaw Trust’s recent report The disability employment gap for graduates, calls for university careers services to be made more accessible for autistic students and graduates.  In most instances, those delivering careers and employability initiatives to support autistic individuals are not in a dedicated disability role, which can make it challenging to maintain expertise and ensure a truly accessible service.  The Disabled Student Commitment urges all universities to ensure that disability-specific support is provided to assist those preparing for employment.  Given that disabled students are one of the groups identified by the Office for Students as most likely to experience risks to equality of opportunity, more resources should be allocated to the institutional services seeking to support this group to progress to employment. 

What Happens Next in Challenging Times asserts that research into the experiences and outcomes of autistic graduates is urgently required in order to better understand how to support positive change for these individuals. Shaw Trust concurs with this, urging those providing support services to learn from their disabled student community.  Whilst some higher education careers services are collaborating with autistic students to create accessible and effective employability support, more could be done to ensure that all autistic graduates have what they need to successfully transition to employment. The number of known autistic students in UK universities is increasing year on year, with figures tripling in the past ten years (from under 7,000 students in 2015, to over 18,000 in 2022, HESA). The scale of the support needed is therefore also increasing at a significant rate, from an initially under-resourced starting point.

As with any group, many autistic individuals attend university with aspirations of accessing highly skilled employment. These people must not be overlooked by Government policy.  For the sake of all autistic individuals, the wider economy and society as a whole, every form of disadvantage experienced by autistic individuals in the workplace must be recognised and removed. Whilst individuals should be supported to identify and communicate the adjustments they need, employers must do more to ensure that workplaces and processes are inclusive and celebrate autistic strengths. Universities have a key role to play, and it is essential that careers professionals assisting autistic students to progress to secure, meaningful graduate employment are provided with the resources they need to provide this crucial support.

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