This week is World Autism Awareness Week. It’s an opportunity to drive greater attention to the issue, but also to celebrate the millions of people living with autism and their contribution to our workplaces, families and wider society. There are around 700,000 adults and children on the autism spectrum in the UK, that’s around one in every 100 people. Despite this, it’s a condition most people know little about.
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects people in different ways. It is not an illness or disease and cannot be 'cured'. Autism affects how people see, hear and experience the world. While each autistic person will have their own strengths and challenges, it often affects how they understand and relate to other people.
This can lead to difficulties interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. To learn more about autism, please visit the National Autistic Society’s website.
What is repeatedly overlooked is that people with autism also often have wonderful cognitive abilities when it comes to logic, pattern recognition, precision, and concentration. It is also quite common for many of them to have great interest in IT, physics, mathematics, and technology.
These are skills that are vital to any business, and yet only 16 per cent of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time-employment. This is because many autistic people find it difficult to secure mainstream employment despite over three quarters wanting to work.
Thankfully, progress is being made. A few years ago, I was fascinated to learn about Auticon - a multinational IT consultancy and social enterprise, which exclusively employs adults on the autism spectrum as IT consultants.Virgin Group invested in Auticon back in October 2016, and I’m proud that Virgin Money and Virgin Management are among their clients, alongside the likes of KPMG, Experian, GlaxoSmithKline, Channel 4 and Allianz. It’s companies like Auticon that are creating enabling environments that allow all of us to flourish and thrive.
After all, celebrating neurodiversity is not just about autism. Many people also view conditions like dyslexia as negative, rather than a positive, different way of thinking.
Last year, I was interested to read a report that says the skills dyslexic people have, such as problem solving and storytelling, can help companies meet the business challenges of the future. The report explains how dyslexic people hold a unique set of skills that will be really important to business – the ability to think flexibly and creatively and solve really complex problems by thinking differently.
My dyslexia has given me a massive advantage in life. It has helped me to think creatively and laterally, and to simplify things, which has been a huge asset when building our Virgin businesses.
Whether we’re talking about autism or dyslexia, employers and educators should do more to make the most of this untapped potential to allow people to flourish.
We could all learn a lot from approaching conditions like autism and dyslexia differently. Rather than encouraging everyone to conform to thinking the same way, let’s support and celebrate our differences - in doing so, we all stand to gain.
Find out how you can get involved in Autism Awareness Week here.