A key component expressed by adults with HFA (and their parents) when taking into account educational and workplace experience, is the negation or lack of understanding given to their sensory and social needs.
A pivotal aspect of this is that, regardless of how highly advanced the skill sets of adults with HFA may be, or how pertinent their qualifications are to their positions within the workforce, their sensory issues and social difficulties are still being viewed negatively.
Often these sensory difficulties are interpreted as a failure to meet the needs of the workforce environment by both employers and workforce agencies alike.
“Despite my son’s TAFE qualifications, it is almost impossible for my son to compete for a position in the open workforce. The main reasons are probably his communication problem and not being able to work under pressure.”
One adult with High Functioning Autism described his experience in this way:
“I have found the current emplacement services to be poor. I tire of dealing with a world that places more emphasis on sociability and likeability than on actual skill. I tire of seeing idiots that are less capable than me get positions, just because they can play the social/political games”
This negation of personal skills due to sociability issues can lead to a harmful sense of alienation for individuals with HFA due to the internalisation of the many negative and damaging comments which erode their levels of self-esteem, within the context of the workforce.
“I’m 45, worked full-time for 29 years, but have not worked at all this year. Two positions I’ve had I held for 10 years each, but in every job I’ve been a complete social failure. I’m reluctant to get another job, and experience another social failing.”
Such statements support the urgent need for understandings regarding the importance of finding the right form of employment, both in terms of qualifications, skills, interests and individual sensory and social supports, to be taken into account.
Levels of support currently experienced within the workplace.
Further evidence of the need for appropriate sensory considerations and support can be found in the expressions of those adults with HFA currently within the workforce.
Of the 34 adults who responded to the question:
What types of support are being received at work?
Only 5 indicated receiving support from specialised workplace agencies.
The majority of respondents indicated that their employers were aware of their conditions yet less than half reported receiving specific considerations from their employers.
Of those who did report receiving special considerations those considerations were expressed in this way;
“My employers are flexible with what I can handle, e.g. they don’t put me on customer service or phone work”.
“My boss provides specific instructions for me for my tasks, as well as informing others”.
“I receive instructions in both written and diagram form”.
The levels of support that employers provide in these instances can be seen as minimal.
Only one participant indicated receiving consideration of sensory issues other than social contact through “special lighting for sensory issues”.
When responding to the question as to what types of support would be desired at work, the majority of respondents stated the need for greater understanding, recognition, respect and awareness of their HFA needs within the work place from others.
A further subset within this group consistently noted the need for greater social skills and communication support as well as the desire to access workplace counselling.
The Illusion of Coping
This survey further found that there were a subset of adults with HFA who express showing an awareness that they appear to be coping with the social aspects of educational or workforce environments but that they are indeed still experiencing difficulties with sensory issues.
These participants describe that, even though they mask their difficulties because of their awareness of the behaviours that are expected of them, they are still experiencing significant social and sensory stress.
“For me, learning how to be social doesn’t make it easier or less stressful because it’s still against my natural grain. If I behave in a socially normal way, then that’s how people perceive me, and I have to keep up that standard which is impossible. I know how to act normal, but I don’t want to have to.”
In this expression the demand placed on those with HFA within work place environments which are not sensitive or responsive to their needs, creates a sense of personal onus on the individual with HFA, to behave in ways that are socially acceptable yet uncomfortable for them.
This is reflected in the following statement in which the illusion or “façade” of successful participation in the workplace is described not as success but as forming the basis for the hope to be able to leave the workforce all together.
“I hope to be able to keep up the facade till the house is paid off so I can revert to total privacy and start to catalogue and read the thousands of books I have.”
Within this study there are several clear expressions by adults with HFA which indicates both their high levels of self-awareness and an acknowledgement of the need to reduce social and sensory interactions by having more control over their work environments in order to create a healthy and sustainable work situation.
“My goal is to have the qualifications that will allow me to have much more choice over type and situation of employment so that I can work in my field but in an environment and under conditions that are conducive to a more balanced lifestyle, mental and physical health and the chance to have my skills acknowledged. At the moment I work in a retail setting…and it’s having a heavy toll.”
Adults with HFA are beginning to acknowledge, define and give voice to the multiple sensory and personal difficulties they encounter within the workforce.
Their voices are expressing that although the perceived ideals of success for adults with HFA in the work force have predominantly been based on the ideal of full-time employment, or the level of income achieved, there are also other determining factors which contribute to workforce success for adults with HFA, which are far more complex and require greater recognition.
Central to these issues are the needs for those with HFA to be able to:
Successfully engage in areas of personal interest both within education and employment.
To have their skills and qualifications appropriately utilized and recognised.
And to have their sensory and social requirements understood by employers and taken more clearly into account within daily workforce practice.
Overall the experiences of adults within this survey suggests that there is a significant disconnect occurring between the policies designed to create educational and employment equality for adults with HFA and the lived experiences of those with HFA.
This disconnect between policy and practice that can be viewed as operating within 3 key areas of experience.
Lack of appropriate educational opportunities and support.
Lack of support within employment agencies and lack of opportunities within the field of employment.
The need to recognize that the current negation of the skills of adults with HFA are being further compounded by a lack of understanding and accommodation of their sensory needs within the workforce.
These 3 areas of distinction lead both parents of young adults with HFA and adults themselves, to question and contest the validity and success of policies that preference under resourced, unsupported, misunderstood and unfulfilling workforce participation for adults with HFA, above honouring and acknowledging their needs for self-esteem, recognition of qualifications and sensory and social supports.
A key way of addressing these issues would be for government initiatives to follow the suggestions of adults and parents who consistently argue for the need to create both education and employment programs that build on and harness the individual skill sets of those with HFA whilst acknowledging their sensory and social needs instead of continuing on with generic or blanket approaches which create frustration and a sense of harm for adults with HFA.
The benefits of taking an individually tailored approach toward education and employment may create the potential to both activate and validate the diverse skill sets adults with HFA currently demonstrate through their participation within voluntary organisations.
In this way workforce policies may be able to offer a new way of perceiving and understanding the interests, skills and potential of those with HFA in a manner that increases self-esteem through recognising both the qualifications and needs of adults with HFA.
Such measures would enable adults with HFA to successfully and safely translate their skills into equally sustainable and fulfilling workforce participation.
Research analysis compiled, conducted and written by Seventhvoice.