CW: sexual abuse
Illustrations by Marcelina Jagielka
Autistic people often have special interests. When I was diagnosed, mine were sudoku and fiction books, according to the psychologist at least. After my diagnosis, another interest was added to the list – autism. I’ve spent hours reading about autism and learnt a lot of scary statistics in the process. They highlight the failings in how autistic people are viewed and treated in society.
In the UK, only 22% of autistic people are in some kind of employment compared to about 75% of the overall population. Some autistic people cannot work due to having high support needs but a lot of us can – more than 22% certainly.
Of course, there are barriers – places of work can be noisy, busy, and have bright lights, for instance. However, adjustments can be made, and employers are expected to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that workers with disabilities are not ‘substantially disadvantaged’. But this is hard to enforce. What constitutes ‘reasonable adjustments’ is subjective, allowing employers to claim that adjustments are too costly or unreasonable to save their bottom line. If an employer is facing a choice between interviewee A who will need adjustments and interviewee B who doesn’t, they’re probably going to choose B. How does A prove they weren’t chosen because of their needs? It’s incredibly hard to do.
Government policy doesn’t help. Both because of policy on reasonable adjustments and because the UK doesn’t use employment quotas to promote employment for disabled people, unlike a lot of the EU. Germany has a quota for employers with over 20 employees and a recent study found that over 68% of respondents with ASD were currently employed.
Interviews can also be hard for autistic people. There is a set notion of what people skills look like – good eye contact, firm handshake, open body language, looking engaged, etc. For autistic people, these can be very unnatural things, meaning we can come across as uninterested or retreating when we’re not. Overall, this means that getting hired can be extremely difficult for autistic people (and disabled people more generally) and then there is the matter of keeping the job.
Already, I have the normal fears about finding a job after graduation and hearing stats like this only worsens that. It seems to me that autistic people face a dilemma: if we tell interviewers that we’re autistic, it might provide the necessary context to our behaviour and they may adjust their decisions as a result of the understanding it’ll give them. But it may provoke them to pigeon-hole us. There are so many misconceptions around autism: that we don’t have empathy or social skills; that we’re robotic; that we can’t talk to new people, just to name a few. So, they may think that we’re not capable of a role when we are. Or maybe they’ll not want to hire us out of fear of what adjustments they may be expected to make. For the last 5 years, I’ve left my anxiety disorder off application forms out of fear of judgement. I don’t know whether to include my autism diagnosis and that’s a problem.
This statistic hurts to read because it’s not due to autistic people not wanting relationships and love – we most certainly do. It’s because a lot of autistic people are brought up to believe that they won’t be able to have relationships, that it’ll be too hard for them. Families worry about their loved one being taken advantage of or being upset by the challenges that dating can bring. When their loved one is in need of support and encouragement they can instead be faced with concern and apprehension.
However, some of these worries are warranted. Autistic people are more likely to be in abusive relationships and, from childhood, are more likely to experience sexual and emotional abuse. It’s estimated that autistic women are three times likelier to be sexually assaulted than non-autistic women. Autism can cause self-esteem and confidence issues and autistic people are often trusting and naive, which makes us especially vulnerable to abuse.
And dating whilst autistic is complex to say the least. There are so many rules and rituals that we can be oblivious to or be aware of but find silly. Personally, I have no clue why some people have rules about waiting a set period to text after a date.
Yet dating being hard doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do it. Autistic people desire and deserve love the same way that non-autistic people do. Love, romance and sex shouldn’t be off-limits for us. And our relationships, whether they be romantic, sexual or both, do not need to be limited to other autistic people, a misconception which shows like the Undateables and Love on the Spectrum can sometimes promote.
Personally, not being diagnosed until 20 wasn’t a good thing. It’s undoubtedly made my life harder in a multitude of ways. However, there is (at least) one way it’s improved my life: I never thought that I couldn’t date.
Under the Mental Health Act, autistic people can be sanctioned for being autistic – 1200 are at the moment. This is shocking as autism is not a mental health problem. We do not need to be cured of autism and, whereas mental illnesses are inherently bad things, autism is not. Being in wards can also exacerbate the problem because they are often loud, bright, and busy. The average length of stay is 5.6 years with the average distance away from home being a devastating 60 miles.
The government needs to step up community and social so that there is no need for inpatient care for autistic people. And stays need to be as short and as autism-friendly as possible. In good news, the government has promised to remove autism from the Mental Health Act. But the timeline is unclear and the number of autistic people in hospital has actually increased since 2015. The Conservatives and the NHS have continually failed to fulfil their promises to autistic people and it is simply not good enough.
Reasons for hope?
I want to end this article on a happy note but I’m not sure how to. These statistics hurt to read and it pains me to think of the stories around them: the scared autistic teen stuck in a ward, stripped of their support system and control over their environment; the middle-aged adult longing for love but believing they are incapable of ever having it; the parent who can’t get a job and who is worried about providing for their child as they can’t perform in interviews.
In the face of these statistics and many others, it’s important for us to remind ourselves that we can have jobs, love, and happy lives. Shows like Atypical or people like Anthony Hopkins or Hannah Gadsby serve as reminders of this, which is just one reason why representative matters. We may require extra patience but we can be every bit as successful in life – whatever that looks like for an individual – as neurotypical people. Don’t forget that.