• Just 3 in 10 autistic people in work, despite 3 in 4 wanting to work
  • Autistic people face multiple barriers to employment
  • Doubling number in work would add 100,000 to UK labour market
  • Benefits to the economy would be worth £900mn-£1.5bn each year
  • PBE estimates average unemployed autistic person going into work would be £9,200 better off each year
  • Research for charity Autistica published ahead of government’s Autism Employment Review

Doubling the number of autistic people currently working in the UK by removing some of the barriers to employment they face could benefit the economy by up to £1.5 billion each year, according to a new report.

Research by Pro Bono Economics (PBE) found the average unemployed autistic person would be £9,200 better off each year by moving into full-time employment.

With less than one in three (30%) autistic people in the UK estimated to be in employment currently, a successful move to double that number would result in an extra 100,000 people in the labour market and overall economic benefits totalling between £900 million and £1.5bn each year, according to the research.

The new PBE report for autism charity Autistica, titled Opening opportunities: Improving employment prospects for autistic people, has been launched ahead of the publication of an official government review designed to boost the employment prospects of autistic people. The Autism Employment Review led by former Justice Secretary Sir Robert Buckland is due to report its recommendations in early 2024. 

Autism, a spectrum condition, is characterised by a diversity of individual skills. This diversity can offer unique ways of thinking and problem-solving. There are also some common attributes that many autistic people possess which employers value, such as attention to detail, focus, loyalty, and honesty.

With economic inactivity posing a significant challenge to policymakers currently, unlocking more of the potential of autistic people and getting them into the labour market would help to support government in its drive to boost productivity and growth.

Currently, autistic people face a range of structural barriers throughout the recruitment process. Some job adverts have been shown to deter autistic jobseekers from applying because they place an unnecessary emphasis on social skills. Similarly, the interview process can be challenging as often it feels like a test of social competence, in which some autistic people underperform due to weaker social skills and anxiety.

Stereotypical views of autistic people, such as the idea they are unable to understand others or carry out tasks, are likely to influence employers and hold back autistic people in the job market. One recent study found more than a third (34%) of employers believe an autistic person would not fit into their team.

The workplace itself also poses a number of challenges. Around 90% of autistic people are estimated to experience atypical sensory experiences. This means offices, particularly open-plan ones, can bombard and overwhelm autistic employees with unwelcome sensory input, such as ringing phones, conversations and tapping of keyboards.

However, a better understanding of autism among employers, workplace adjustments and shifts in ways of working can improve the employability and employment experience of autistic people. Managers can make a big difference through adjustments to their approaches, such as clearer communication and expectations. Similarly, recruiters could help to reduce barriers by removing irrelevant social criteria from job application processes. 

Within the workplace, there are also evidence-based interventions and reasonable adjustments that can be made, such as calming the sensory environment by providing noise-cancelling headphones, or designating a quiet relaxation space. A study of autistic workers found more than four in five (84%) perceived workplace adjustments as vital to them performing adequately in their role.

Last year, Autistica launched its Employment Plan with a goal of doubling the employment rate of autistic people by 2030. The charity has also developed the Neurodiversity Employers Index (NDEI®), a framework to help employers measure and develop their neurodiversity and neuro-inclusion practices. In addition, Autistica directly supports autistic people to gain employment through various initiatives, including employment readiness programmes.

In the UK, an estimated 1% of working age adults are autistic, meaning 330,000 of the 41mn working age adults nationally fall on the autism spectrum. Employment rates for autistic people remain far lower than those of their peers. While just 30% of autistic people in the UK were estimated to be in employment in 2022/23, this compares to around half (54%) of all 16-64-year-olds registered as disabled and around eight in 10 (82%) in the non-disabled population.

Nevertheless, evidence indicates many autistic people out of work wish to be in employment. A recent study found three-quarters (77%) of unemployed autistic people want to work and half (50%) said that support, understanding or acceptance would be the single biggest thing that would help them into employment.

Rachel Gomez, Senior Economist at PBE, said:

“This research captures the significant opportunity that awaits employers, autistic people, the government and the UK economy as a whole by striving to double the number of autistic people currently in employment.

“We know that many unemployed autistic people want to work and have a diverse set of skills that are highly valuable to employers, but due to structural barriers throughout the employment process, many of these individuals are missing out on the chance to put their skills to use and benefit from employment.

“The work of charities such as Autistica in shining a light on these challenges and highlighting best practice from employers is vital. It is also crucial that policymakers take on board these insights to inform the forthcoming recommendations from the Autism Employment Review and ensure they lead to lasting change.”

Dr Amanda Roestorf, Head of Research at Autistica, said:

“We are extremely grateful to Pro Bono Economics for supporting Autistica to develop this important report. This report makes the case to employers, government and recruiters that investing in autistic people not only benefits individuals, but has wide-reaching business, economic and social benefits.

“Although we know that many employers already understand the value of autistic talent, and the need for neuroinclusive approaches, the employment rates and career progression among autistic people still lag far behind the rest of the population and other disabled groups.

“However, it is not enough to simply get autistic people into work. We need to support them to thrive and progress in employment. This will require organisations to commit to long-term changes to working practices and cultures. It is essential that this is recognised and made a priority.

“We believe that with the right support and understanding, autistic individuals can thrive in the workplace, bringing a wealth of talent and unique perspectives to their roles. We call on all employers to join us in this mission to create a more inclusive and diverse workforce.”

Read the full report