A North East charity is launching a campaign to create 1,000 vital employment opportunities for autistic people in the region.

Only three in 10 autistic people are in work – the lowest rate of any disability group – even though three-quarters of unemployed autistic people say they want a job.

Now the North East Autism Society (NEAS) is calling on businesses to open up new routes into work for neurodivergent people and think differently about their hiring practices and in-work support.

The campaign, called 1,000 Opportunities: Inclusive Futures, is being launched on World Autism Acceptance Day and is backed by MPs and big businesses in the region including Tyne Tunnel operator TT2 and Darlington Building Society.

John Phillipson, chief executive of NEAS, says: “We meet people every day who have skills they could bring to the employment market, yet they are blocked because of obstacles that are often very minimal.

The Northern Echo: John Phillipson John Phillipson (Image: Submitted)

“With a little bit of adjustment, employers could make huge difference. We want to build up a network of companies in the North East willing to do this so we can share expertise and good practice.”

Doubling the autistic employment rate could boost the UK economy by up to £1.5 billion a year, according to a report by the research charity Autistica.

And corporate giants including Microsoft, Google, Vodaphone and Deutsche Bank are deliberately developing neurodiverse workforces because of the increased productivity they can bring.

Tyne Tunnels operator TT2 has seen its performance soar since it hired autistic customer experience agents to work on its automatic number plate recognition scheme in 2022, and it is now looking to expand its diversity scheme.

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TT2 chief executive Adrian Wallace, who has two autistic children, says: “It’s one of the big things that attracted me to the business before I came in last September.

“Business and society as a whole have a real opportunity to do the right things and realise that it’s not about people changing to fit in the work environment – it’s changing those environments to make them more open and inclusive. That’s why I’m backing the NEAS campaign.”

Harris Roxborough, 33, is one of TT2’s autistic employees, recruited through work trial rather than interview 18 months ago.

She says: “I love my job. If you find that niche that an autistic person is good at, and give them the opportunity, they will fly. They will give you 130% because they’re enjoying it and you’re treating them like a person.

“A lot of autistic people want to be in work and there’s such a large percentage of us who aren’t. We can contribute if you give us the chance.”

Darlington Building Society is another leading organisation backing the campaign. Helen Easton, director of people and culture, said: “As a business working closely with NEAS, Darlington Building Society is fully behind the objectives of the 1,000 Opportunities campaign. Our aim as an employer is to be as inclusive as possible.”

The Northern Echo: Helen EastonHelen Easton (Image: DBS)

The disability gap in the North East is the worst in the country, and MPs in the region are supporting the NEAS campaign as one way to help people to work.

Chi Onwurah, Newcastle Central MP and Labour shadow minister for science, research and innovation, said: “Industry and other employers have everything to gain from a neurodiverse workforce. I back this campaign and would urge companies to take the chance to think differently about how they become more inclusive.”

Peter Gibson, the Conservative MP for Darlington, said: “The Government has pledged to get a million more disabled people into work by 2027 and commissioned the Buckland Review of Autism Employment to support this. We know the majority of autistic people want to work, and I welcome the NEAS campaign.”

Ian Mearns, Labour MP for Gateshead, said: “Access to a job makes such a difference to lives, in terms of wellbeing, self-worth and community inclusion, and it’s hugely important to support everyone to achieve that. But we need our fantastic and caring business community to step up to the mark to provide those opportunities.

“We do have a fantastic business community in the North East and it would be great to think they could come together, with us, to share ideas and provide these vital new opportunities.”

Companies who sign up to the NEAS campaign will be asked to look at ways they can create new opportunities, look again at their hiring practices, and support neurodivergent colleagues at work.

They will join a network of business partners with access to case studies and resources, with the potential of online training and in-person events later in the year.

• Find out more and sign up at: www.ne-as.org.uk/1000-opportunities Harris Roxborough has worked for Tyne Tunnels operator TT2 for 18 months. In World Autism Acceptance Week (Month), she explains why it’s the little things that can mean so much to autistic employees.

My story

HARRIS Roxborough, 33, has spent years out of work – but says it’s often tiny obstacles that stand in the way of autistic people like her.

“It can be as small as having to dress up for an interview. Smart clothes are never comfortable, and you can be squirming in your seat unable to think about anything else,” says Harris, who was diagnosed at 14.

The Northern Echo: Harris Roxborough Harris Roxborough (Image: Submitted)

“Interview questions can be ambiguous or they’re not focused on the job itself. You’re trying to be the person they want you to be, rather than who you are, which can be difficult for neurodivergent people.

“And when you’re one person facing a bunch of others across a desk, that’s very intimidating.”

At TT2, the hiring process was very different. She and her future colleagues could wear whatever they liked, and they discussed the role and its specific requirements with a manager in an informal way.

Getting a job is only part of the story. Disabled people are entitled to reasonable adjustments in the workplace under the Equality Act 2010 but not all employers are willing to implement them.

Harris says: “My last job was as a stocktaker and my employer initially put the adjustments in place. But then the manager changed after a couple of years and they weren’t interested. I ended up quitting for my physical and mental health.

“One small thing for you can be a very large thing for us.

“When I joined TT2, my manager kept asking what he could do to help us. I found it difficult at first because I’m not used to that and I didn’t want to be a bother. But I find it easier now, because even if something is not possible immediately, they try their best to work with me for a solution.”

As a result, Harris has changed her working pattern from two full days to three five-hour days. She has an allocated desk, and she’s allowed to listen to music over headphones to help her focus on her screen.

Even if something is not possible immediately, they try their best to work with me for a solution

Harris loves her job, which involves reviewing pictures from automatic number plate recognition cameras and matching them to the payment system. It gives her a routine, it boosts her self-esteem, and she enjoys the challenge of getting it right.

And TT2 also benefits. Harris is precise and focused in her work and takes pride in her productivity statistics, which she logs in a little book.

“Lots of people come up and say they couldn’t do what I do for more than an hour, because they’d get bored and hate it,” she says.

“But I find it fun! I review upwards of 10,000 images a month. Neurodivergent people are often very hard-working, especially at stuff that they’re good at.”