Roughly 700,000 adults and children in the UK with autistic spectrum condition (ASC)(Autism.org.uk, 2019), however, in 2007 only 15% of these people were in full-time paid employment and in the decade since the figure has only improved by 1%. Including part-time employment, the employment rate in 2017 was 32%, compared to 80% of the general population and 47% of people with disabilities (National Autistic Society, 2019).
People an ASC have a huge range of skills, however some in employment feel that “they are in low-skilled work and employers don’t see their abilities” (National Autistic Society, 2019) and “79% of adults with autism who receive out of work benefits say they would rather work” (Hill, 2019).In the foreword to Grandin’s Developing Talents, Tony Attwood writes that “This is a remarkable waste of potential talent. The American workforce needs the benefit of the qualities of people with Asperger Syndrome and autism” (Grandin, Duffy and Attwood, 2008)
I agree with these statements: that people with ASC can greatly enrich their workplaces and communities, learn essential skills and build confidence. This project will delve into why the employment levels are so low, and how I can, in a small way, attempt to address this imbalance.
A note on vocabulary
From now on in the project, I will refer to people with autistic spectrum condition as ‘neurodiverse’, except where quoted sources differ in vocabulary. The term autistic spectrum condition is preferred to ‘disorder’ as neurodiverse people prefer not to be considered disordered. People without an autistic spectrum condition will be referred to as ‘neurotypical’, rather than ‘normal’, because this ‘others’ neurodiverse people. It should be noted that every neurodiverse person might have a preferred way in which to refer to themselves or their condition, and I am using the terms that can be considered the most inclusive and uncontentious.
What are the factors that hinder neurodiverse people from entering the workforce?
Public views of autism have come a long way since Dustin Hoffman’s depiction of a savant in Rain Man(1988): we now understand that to be autistic is to be on a wide spectrum of skills and needs, and individual to each person. The National Autistic Society reports that “employers have told us that they are worried about getting things wrong for autistic employees and that they don’t know where to go for advice”, suggesting that given the right information and support, employers would be more willing to engage with people with autism for employment (National Autistic Society, 2019).
For my project, I will be working with a small focus group from the Knots’ Arts Youth Club that runs for two hours on Saturday afternoons in south-west London. Attracting between ten and fifteen young people with high-functioning autism each session, it is a space created to allow each person to be themselves and meet new people. My housemate, Cassie Yates (to divulge our connection), and her partners Hazel East and Bex Hand formed Knots Arts in 2013 to maintain drama and social programmes for neurodiverse children and young people. Their mission is to “create inclusive, friendly and fun sessions were children and young people feel safe and supported to develop their communication skills and build friendships. By meeting others who understand the challenges that social communication difficulties can bring, children are able to work together to embrace their differences and overcome any obstacles that they may present” (Knotsarts.com, 2019).
Having been to some of these sessions, the people are delightful and interesting and would be an asset to a workplace. What is stopping them? Cassie offers her insight: One of the main challenges that the members of Knots Arts Youth Group face is transitioning to independence. By working, even part-time they are able to not only learn to manage their own money but also timekeeping, travel and decision making. Neurotypical people make thousands of small decisions every day without realising it. For those with a neurodiversity such as autism, those small decisions can feel overwhelming, from simple things like where to sit on their break, to asking someone if they need some help with a task. Being in the workplace allows them to experience a new environment and develop their social communication skills further with a wider variety of people. They are not always in an environment where people know they have a neurodiversity and they have to navigate complicated social and professional situations often with unsympathetic or understanding participants.”
Members of the youth group have got part-time and full-time employment, so how does it help them? Cassie says that “they have grown in confidence, they feel they have something to offer and some have made friends. Employment makes them feel like they are part of society, and to quote the group: ‘It’s what normal people do, so why can’t I?’.”
The HealthTalk website offers another insight into how neurodiverse people find employment and the application process. Oliver thinks “that people with [ASC] fail in normal human resource, hiring situations where it’s ‘please put your name here’ and it’s in a fairly basic form and people would, because the questions are obviously going to filter certain things out and I think this is where people on the spectrum or with [ASC] fail. Because it’s not necessarily that they can’t do the job. It’s they don’t understand what’s been asked of them, because I’ve had this with quite a few situations.” (Healthtalk.org, 2016)
At Knots’ Arts, Cassie has noticed that application forms “cause a lot of stress for the members as they do not understand how to answer them… They can be too vague, too long, they can cause sensory overload due to colour and formatting. They often bring them to the group so we can help fill them out, for example, explain what the questions mean and show them where to write things.” For me, this is a clear indication that application forms can be redesigned to take away the first hurdle that neurodiverse people face when applying for work.
What can I do to help?
It would be too wide an issue for this project to include the many issues that neurodiverse people face in the entirety of employment. There are government-run schemes that can help and coach people into work, however, I feel that the impetus should be led by companies. The National Autistic Society agrees, stating that “if companies are serious about being disability confident, they should explore alternative forms of recruitment or adjustments to the interview process” (National Autistic Society, 2019).
Employment application processes typically revolve around two parts: a job application form (or a CV and covering letter) and an interview. This project, and course, revolves around design and therefore the subject shouldn’t revolve around an oral process. Similarly, CVs and covering letters are very personal and are entirely self-constructed, making it a very large scope to cover. On the other hand, job application forms are a standard for part-time employment, which all sectors of society tend to start with alongside education as an avenue into a career.
Who is this project for?
This project is aimed at helping the design community and hiring departments to build and structure application forms in a way that would allow neurodiverse people to access the next stages of the application process.
Focus Group and Methodology
With the Youth Club of Knots’ Arts, I will conduct a short focus group in order to obtain research about what would help neurodiverse people fill in application forms. To do this, I will provide samples of application forms and ask the group what they like and dislike the forms, and how they feel they could be improved.
The research will be collected physically by way of notes on the application forms written by members of the group, and orally by myself and the leaders listening to their thoughts and concerns.
The forms will be paper forms sourced online. Many shops do have online forms, but for the practicality of the session and availability of technology, they will be printed forms.
Presentation of ethics and data privacy
The project’s aim is to reduce stress around application forms for neurodiverse people, so it is possible that this study will cause stress for participants
- The research will be conducted with participants’ full awareness of the aims
- I will take guidance from the Knots’ Arts leaders about language and how to structure the session
- The session will be clearly signposted and of a clearly defined length
- If any member of the youth group do not want to participate, they will be free to move away
- Participants will be grouped together and will be able to work independently or with the group. The groups will be chosen by the Knots’ Arts leaders
- The participants will be able to write down their thoughts or articulate them verbally to myself or a Knots’ Arts leader
- Knots’ Arts leaders will be present and participate with the research with the youth group.
- The participants will remain anonymous.
I had expectations for the outcomes and noted them down so that I would be aware of my bias. They were:
- The group would prefer pale colour backgrounds compared to white
- No background graphics would be preferred
- Lots of white space so that the information can be easily taken in
- Tick-boxes would not be ideal
- Larger typeface size and larger leading
- Typefaces with large x-heights with clear differentiation between capital ‘I’s and ‘l’s.
The main concerns from the youth group came from data protection and how their information was going to be used. I assured them that applications are generally covered under privacy protection laws, however, this clearly still worried them, in particular, one participant who brought it up multiple times.
Many companies ask questions about how the applicant had heard about the job and whether the applicant had family working for the company (Argos and Dollar General). The group generally found these questions to be irrelevant and intrusive as they did not understand why the company would need to know this information.
The application forms were generally deemed too long and to ask too much information, with a particular reference to Dollar General. The Forever21 form was the most-liked form for the information asked as it was brief and the questions related to the information the group expected to be answered.
Although the forms were intended for part-time work, the group were concerned that they were asked for details of previous employment because many had never had jobs before.
The background of the Forever21 form, and that of Dollar General, were thought to be distracting and unnecessary.
As I said above, the forms requesting less information, such as Forever21, were favoured partly because of the lesser deceive of perceived intrusion and also because the pages were less cluttered. The typeface was larger and there was more white space around the text.
Where the forms asked for longer answers to questions, dotted lines were preferred as a guide for how much to write. It would be made even clearer if there were boxes around each question, further separating each question visually for the applicant.
On the Topshop form, the boxes to the right of the answers seem to relate to an internal process, but this was unclear to the youth group. Because no instructions were given to the applicant about what to do with these boxes, they were confusing.
Some forms asked for the applicant when they would be available to work. Although I had one hypothesis that tick boxes may mean neurodiverse people might have an issue with tick boxes, it was much preferred to the Toys’R’Us version. TopShop had a similar idea with a table, however, confusingly split the day between morning, afternoon and evening. I can imagine this would be confusing as the times are not specified.
The Comic Sans used for the Toys ‘R’ Us form was reviled as childish and as if the form was “made to look easy-to-read, and the Forever21 was considered unnecessarily fussy. All other typefaces were accepted.
There was a consensus that the typeface was less important than the size and leading of the font. Larger fonts with plenty of leading to create white space around the text was most important because it seemed less intimidating than a small, closely packed font.
The forms had minimal colour: most used black ink on a white background, presumably to reduce the cost of printing out each form. Topshop used colour for headings, which graphically indicated a change of section, however had an entirely black first page, which to me is a diabolical waste of ink.
A detail that seemed to concern the youth group was the distinction between “present address”, “current address” and “home address”. To them, it seemed unnecessary and confusing when “address” could have been used instead.
Questions such as “Why do you want to work for Argos/Topshop” was met with answers of “because I want to earn money”/”I want to have a job”. What would be a better way to pose this question so that the applicant would know what was asked of them? Questions such as “When have you delivered/received great service? What did you do/receive? How did you measure it?” (Topshop form) caused confusion and stress because the questions were grouped together: When, What, How. Participants would have preferred them to be separated, with a space for an answer between them.
Knots’ Arts Enlighten Form
In addition to the job application forms, I also asked the focus group to consider the Knots’ Arts Enlighten form. This is filled out by the parent or guardian of the person coming to one of their programmes and allows the person’s needs, likes and dislikes to be communicated to the leaders. If a neurodiverse person becomes distressed or is non-verbal, they might not be able to communicate their needs to a leader, and the form means that the leaders are aware of triggers and stress factors.
The leaders would like the form to be redesigned so that it is more accessible for the young people to fill out themselves, rather than their parent or guardian and have asked me to help as part of the project. This form was considered after the job application forms. The outcomes were:
- What is the form for and how will the information be used?
- Where will do I write my answers?
One young person comes to the youth club with their mother as they are mostly non-verbal. The mother explained that as a parent, she often had to fill out forms detailing her child’s ASC, and felt that it could be very upsetting when it focussed on her child’s triggers or behaviour that indicated that they were stressed. Instead, she thought that a focus on the positive attributes of the young person could be also highlighted in the form. Also, she felt that the form asked questions in the form of words, where perhaps symbols or illustration could be alongside the words so that people who found it more difficult to read could understand what was being asked. This could turn a form-filling task into an activity young person and parent/guardian could complete together so the young person has more agency over their care.
Analysis of outcomes
The most salient point that I drew from the focus group was that clear sign-posting is needed. Why is information needed? Where do I need to answer that question? This could be tackled in a number of graphical ways, including boxes and colour-coding.
Another conclusion to draw from the focus group that less information was needed: on both sides. Some questions were seen as intrusive and unnecessary by applicants, and if there were large blocks of text, it was confusing and the information was not taken in. Recruiters need to consider what information is actually needed at application stage, such a contact details, and what is only of interest to them, for example, “Where did you find out about this role?”
- A clear statement that the information will be private and not shared
- Information about how the applicant heard about the job should not be included
- Avoid internal reference boxes
- The members of Knots’ Arts Youth Group are unlikely to attend sessions set up to help them with job applications
- Type should have plenty of space between lines, and blocks of information should be shorter so that they do not seem intimidating
- Colour can be used as a sign-posting technique
Building a new form
I am going to build the form in Indesign, as this is the project I am most familiar with! For the typeface, I looked at Google Fonts and shortlisted these three:
before settling on IBM Plex Sans because I feel it is open and spacious, with clear tails on the ‘l’s.
I also want to make sure that the information asked was relevant so cut out much of the questions asked, whilst keeping in essential information. Here is draft one of the form:
Analysis by Knots Arts
Ideally, I would have asked the youth group to give feedback on the form so that I could include more recommendations from them. However, the group is on the half-term break as of the time of writing. Cassie Yates has given her opinion:
“On the education section, I would divide it into qualification, subject, grade e.g. A Level, History, BTEC. this would make it easier to understand what goes where. If possible it would be good to have an example if you can fit it in.
“About your experience section, choose to either use opportunity or situation or place what was the situation? A line below, so it’s clear it is part of the answer, not the question.
“There are other things that I know would cause questions but you cannot cover it all. I will list them here but this is just for reference.
- “At the beginning of the form, what will happen if the application is not successful?
- “What documents prove the right to work in the UK?
- “How will I be contacted?
“Overall it is very clear and asks for relevant information.
“Some bits are wordy but these are the legal bits so nowt you can do about that.”
Analysis from tutors
Feedback from HR department at a publishing company:
- “Due to GDPR/Data Protection we only ask the information that we require and must be able to prove why we require information if asked. Therefore, we wouldn’t usually ask for someone’s address at this stage. Neither would we ask for date of birth as we wouldn’t want this to have the potential to effect [sic] any shortlisting decisions, we could open ourselves up to unconscious bias.
- “We ask for Right to Work evidence at offer stage. We would ask if they are legally entitled to work at this stage but wouldn’t ask them to provide evidence at interview stage.
- “If [sic] there a necessity to know the address of their school/college/uni?
- “Sometimes the individuals most relevant experience is not necessarily their most recent job. For example, If I was applying for shop/shift work I would draw on shop work I did years ago rather than my HR experience. Is there space for this and not just the latest role?
- “The declaration at the end – is this necessary? Perhaps there could be one more question about their soft skills instead? i.e. Can you explain what excites and interests you about working for….? Why do you believe you will be an asset to….? Describe a situation when you decided to adapt your approach to provide a better outcome for others and why? Describe an example of a mistake that you have made or an unexpected issue, how did you feel about this and what actions you took following this experience?”
Final outcome of form
After feedback from Knots’ Arts, an HR professional and Stuart Tolley, I revised the form:
Neurodiversity should not be a barrier to work, and ideally, it should be companies and their HR departments that lead the way to ensure that the application process is welcoming and accessible as possible. In this project, I have focussed on a small group with which to make a form to ensure that I could hear their thoughts, and all of the members have skills that would be valuable to a workplace.
Before taking application forms to the youth group, I had expectations for what they might like and respond to well, and what they might not. A few were correct, for example, preferring forms with lots of white space and less text, however, I did not anticipate how they would be nervous about the amount of information I asked.
The form is not an end-all: customisations might be needed for each company and role for the form to be usable. At the moment, it serves as the base level that needs to considered, and with notes, I am able to communicate why I have made the design decisions that I have. It’s a useful tool for companies to be able to consider why they ask for the personal information that they do.
Evaluation and possibilities for the future
I think I took a while to reach the concept of the project, and once I did I felt like I knew the scope and could see the end result clearly. Looking at the project as a whole, it doesn’t strike me as graphically interesting because the requirements of the focus group dictated that it should be clear and simple. However, the project has reached into an overlooked issue that, if it were to be expanded, could have life-changing effects for neurodiverse people. So how could I take this further?
To start with, I would increase the focus group size from one youth group to groups with varying needs and different ages. The feedback I would get, I predict, would be at times contradictory but the more input into what works and doesn’t work for different people would enable me to create a stronger form.
Whilst carrying out a focus group, I would find a new way to collect feedback. For this project, the members of the group were able to talk to me, and I recorded their responses, or they wrote notes directly onto the forms. A way to record their responses that would be able to quantify their responses on a sliding scale, without being stressful, might be one way to do this.
The application forms I selected came from various shops, and I feel they are out of date. Many companies now purely recruit online, so I would widen the study to include online forms. I would aim to work directly with companies to design forms that serve neurodiverse people so that feedback between what employers and potential employees required can be considered simultaneously. If I continued with the project, I would look at paper and online forms, and that would require a standard way of recording responses.
The end-all project would be an online graphic design tool that would allow HR professionals to build print or online forms themselves, whilst following linguistic and design guidelines for neurodiverse people. This would have the effect of ensuring that companies are able to ask for the information they need and get informed responses from all applications and mean that employment of all kinds is accessible for neurodiverse people.