The Benefits of an Autistic Employee Forum
Rachel Birch, Service Manager
Scottish Autism has gone through a number of transformations over the years, as our understanding of autism and the needs of autistic people in Scotland has developed. If you’ve ever been on our website’s About Us section you will have seen that we were “Established in 1968 by a group of parents”. Today we are a diverse organisation made up of around 1000 employees from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some are still parents or family members of autistic people, and this experience and passion is as valued today as it was in 1968. Most importantly, we also have autistic employees like myself.
You will find autistic people in roles within Scottish Autism across the organisation from direct support staff to practice development advisors, and leadership positions. Our focus on improving the lives of all autistic people in Scotland naturally made some autistic people want to work with us, and to stay once they were in the door, as it did in my case. However, our employment practices have historically been driven by what is considered good HR practice in the wider sector, rather than specifically asking ourselves how we could be an employer of choice for autistic people.
In early 2019 I delivered a workshop at our staff conference entitled Autism and Employment: Reflecting on our own Management and Recruitment Practices. A number of projects have come out of this, one of which was the creation of our Autistic Employee Forum. Long before the existence of that forum, I knew how life changing peer support could be, from my own experiences with friends as well as those I’ve had with a number of peer support organisations. In those spaces and with those people, I would continually find myself wishing I had access to something similar, but with people who knew what it was like to be autistic whilst working in my profession.
When I first started working with Scottish Autism I knew of only two other openly autistic colleagues in the whole organisation. My experience today is very different. In the past few months, the Autistic Employee Forum has become what I had felt a need for whilst engaging in other peer and professional support spaces. I’ve experienced the forum as a place where I’ve been able to explore whether my experiences as an employee were shared by others who were also autistic. These experiences have been ones which, despite having a positive working relationship with my own managers and colleagues, I had never shared. Ultimately, what had been the barrier to me sharing many things, was shame due to self and societally imposed stigmas.
Our society piles such stigmas onto autistic people at an alarming rate from the very earliest years of childhood. They can be absolutely paralysing and rip the voice right out of us. Discovering my experiences were shared by other autistic employees whom I respected took all of that out the equation; now it wasn’t me, it was our experience. It also gave me an added motivation to approach those topics with my line manager by highlighting the fact I could potentially help other autistic employees by doing so. This was of particular importance since some are not widely recognised autistic needs in employment. Even as an autistic person myself, I never stop learning about what good autism practice is - whether that be through learning from others, discussions within the autistic community, my experiences as a practitioner and leader, or even self-reflecting and using myself as my own research subject (big bonus of being an autistic autism professional!). Yes, I am autistic and have all the added insight which that brings, but I know for certain there have been times where I could have improved in my own management and leadership of other autistic employees. My experience with the Autistic Employee Forum has not only helped me as an employee, but also made me a better manager and leader for my own autistic employees.
I hope that as the forum grows and embeds itself as a core platform for autistic employee engagement, that more and more examples of good practice are shared from there for the benefit of non-autistic colleagues and line managers. Thanks to a senior leadership team who let me crack on with such an initiative with more support and trust than I could have asked for, I have experienced an enormous culture change in a very short period of time. I now receive fortnightly organisation-wide staff e-zines which have recently included communications from autistic employees in each issue.
Those communications so far have come in the form of: videos; writing; and even regular songs written and performed by an autistic colleague as a way of communicating their lived experience. One piece of writing was called “Dear Questioner”, which an autistic colleague wrote for others who may be questioning whether they are autistic. The piece shares how the forum has helped them, being, in their words, “life-changing”, providing reassuring answers to the stressful questions they had ruminating in their mind.
I sit here now finishing this article after attending an online social gathering of the autistic employee forum. This evening’s gathering was the first time I’d had a chance to speak at length with one of the newer employees to join us. They kindly shared tonight that what made them want to work for Scottish Autism most was “seeing someone in such a senior role within the organisation be openly autistic”. I also shared with them how nice it is for me now not to be the only openly autistic employee in my service area, and to have a culture where people can be more openly and authentically themselves in work, which seems to have been beneficial for all.
This culture change has resulted in me feeling happier and more able to be my authentic self in work than I have ever been in my life. In a sector where recruitment and retention can be so challenging, and lived experience can add so much value that is something worth sharing.