People with autism face prejudice and barriers on the labour market

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Less than 10% of people with autism spectrum disorders are employed, an EESC hearing reveals

People with autism can be productive members of society if we provide them with proper support and understanding, participants in a debate prepared by the EESC’s Section on Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship (SOC) said on April 3.

The EESC organized the event, which focused on the challenges of employing persons with autism, to mark the World Autism Awareness Day, observed on April 2 around the world.

Opening the debate, president of the SOC section, Mr Pavel Tratina, said that celebrating this day was a way of "encouraging member states to take measures to raise awareness about autism throughout society."

Another aim of the event was to support an international campaign that promotes greater respect for the rights of people suffering from this neural development disorder in Europe.

The campaign “Break Barriers Together for Autism – Let’s Build an Accessible Society” was launched by Autism-Europe, an international association, and will try to identify how Europe can work to remove the obstacles faced by autistic people in everyday life, including in finding employment.

Donata Pagetti Vivanti, Vice President of EDF and former president of Autism Europe, told the debate autistic people were still largely seen as incapable and unreliable and many employers were reluctant to employ them for fear of creating problems at the workplace.

"Most of the people with autism are inactive," she said, adding that, according to available data, less than 10% of autistic people are employed.. Autism-Europe puts that number at between 10 and 24% of employed adults with the disorder. The different figures can be explained by the fact that most autistic people in employment are not diagnosed or not even aware themselves.

Autism covers a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of disability and is therefore referred to as the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A person can be diagnosed with severe or mild autism, depending on the level of their impairment. One common symptom is the lack of ability to socialize and engage fully in verbal or non-verbal communication.

The disorder affects one out of every 150 children around the world but its incidence has been on the rise in recent years, amounting to as much as 30% more children diagnosed as autistic every year since 2012.

Autistic people often display above-average skills in particular fields like reading, language, music or spatial skills. However, because of the shortcomings they may display in social interaction and other fields they are often considered ‘inadequate’ for regular employment and are therefore reduced to further social exclusion.

Another participant in the debate, Diedirk Weve, an engineer at Shell, has been actively urging people with ASD to stand up for their rights in society. Mr Weve has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, as an adult.

He now works as an ambassador for "Autism Embassy", a Dutch project that seeks to rid autism of its social stigma through the work of autistic ambassadors employed by large organisations. Those ambassadors encourage others on the autistic spectrum to talk openly about their shortcomings, whose cause may escape detection for years.

Other participants also said progress has been made but much more remained to be done.

Dirk Rombaut, Commercial Director of Antwerp-based Passwerk, said his company  employed many software engineers with ASD. After a two-week observation to assess their competencies and the level of impairment, new employees with ASD undergo tailored training and are given job coaches to help them adapt to the new environment and tasks.

"A lot of big companies have followed our lead but the scope is often limited", Mr Rombaut said. "We wouldn't be as far as we are now if we didn't have people with autism spectrum disorder in our midst. It is simple nonsense to push people with autism aside,“ he added.

To further raise autism awareness, EESC and Autism-Europe have also organized a photo exhibition as part of the campaign ‘Break barriers together for autism’. The exhibition was opened on April 3 and it will run to April 21, featuring the works by three photographers.