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Civil Service

Raising awareness of autism

Philip Rutnam, Perm Secretary for the Department for Transport and Civil Service Disability Champion
Philip Rutnam, Perm Secretary for the Department for Transport and Civil Service Disability Champion

Last Saturday, 2 April, marked the beginning of 2016 World Autism Awareness Week.

This annual event provides a great opportunity to raise awareness about the condition and make a difference to the lives of autistic people across the UK.

Autism is a lifelong disability that affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to other people. It is often described as a 'spectrum disorder' because the condition affects people in many different ways and to varying degrees. For example, Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism considered to be on the ‘high functioning’ end of the spectrum named after the Austrian doctor who first described it.

People with autism can experience difficulties in social interaction and non-verbal communication, and can find it hard to read the signals that most of us take for granted. Some may also experience over- or under-sensitivity to sound, touch, taste, smell, light or colours.

Why does Autism Awareness Week matter to the Civil Service?

First, the Civil Service has many employees with autism who may not be fully engaged or don’t have the opportunity to realise their full potential due to a lack of awareness about how best to support people with this condition. As Civil Service Disability Champion I have met some fantastic colleagues with autism who have willingly shared their experiences and insights, and I’ve increasingly become aware that we need to do more to increase understanding and support in this area.

Second, the Civil Service needs to attract the widest range of talent. Many talented people with autism have specific skills that the Civil Service needs, such as enhanced perceptual functions and a greater-than-average ability to pay attention to small, apparently insignificant details. Organisations including our own GCHQ, Microsoft and software companies such as Denmark’s Specialisterne have acknowledged these skills and are proactively recruiting people on the autism spectrum to meet specific skills gaps.

So what are we doing?

A lot is going on nationally, but I’d just like to mention two Civil Service events here.

 Today, we held an Asperger’s Awareness Lunch and Learn session at the BIS Conference Centre in Westminster. This session was led by Aspierations, a leading organisation with specialist knowledge in this area, to discuss Asperger’s in the workplace and the value that neurodiverse individuals can add.

In late June/early July we will be running an autism work-placement programme aimed at young people with autism who have an interest in the public sector. This builds on a very successful programme that we ran in DWP and HMRC last year in partnership with the charity Ambitious about Autism. The new programme aims to provide participants with insight into the workplace, develop their confidence to apply for roles in the public sector and develop autism confidence within the business. This year, we are expanding the initiative to include other departments, including the Department for Transport.

My request as Civil Service Disability Champion is that we use World Autism Awareness Week as a catalyst to increase our understanding of autism and how we can support colleagues with this condition.

If you have any comments or queries on this blog, please post them below, or contact me directly at

And finally…

All of us have a part to play in creating an inclusive workplace for colleagues with autism. Ambitious about Autism has provided the following helpful checklist of key points to consider:

  1.    Recruitment - A job interview can be the most daunting task for a person with autism. The questions are usually abstract, with little or no time to prepare. If a person discloses they have autism, consider a working interview or short job trial so they can show you how they can perform the job. Alternatively, ensure questions are not abstract and can be answered literally. For example, ‘How would your friends describe you?’ is far too abstract. Try instead, ‘Tell me one skill that you are very good at.’
  2.    Speak to your employee about how you can best support them – Like everyone, people with autism are vastly different and will have individual support needs. If an employee has disclosed that they have autism, do not be afraid to approach the subject. Most people with autism will know what support they need to work effectively and will be happy (and relieved) if you speak to them about it. Most adjustments and support needs are minor, but will have a very positive impact for that person.
  3.    Give clear, written instructions – People with autism can find it difficult to interpret meaning through language, so concise instructions are important. For example, ‘Your lunchbreak is flexible’ can be ambiguous. Instead try, ‘You have one hour for lunch. You can take it from 12pm and be ready to start work again at 1pm.’ Some people may also take longer to process instructions. If you ask someone to ‘re-fill the photocopier, print some invoices and file some paperwork’, they may only recall ‘re-fill the photocopier’. It can be very beneficial to write down instructions so individuals can refer back to what they are required to do.
  4.    Be aware of the working environment – Some people with autism may have sensitivities to light and noise. Bright lights, ringing telephones or conversations between colleagues may have a greater impact on a person with autism. Low lighting at desks, a quiet space or allowing an employee to wear headphones can make a huge difference to their productivity.
  5.    Structure and predictability – People with autism can thrive with structure and predictability. Often a person will become involved in a task and if disturbed may find it difficult to return to the task. Providing a regular, daily structure, will ensure an employee knows what they are required to do each day. Inevitably, there will be changes over the working week. However, providing as much advance warning as possible about any changes that will be occurring can help a person manage their day more effectively.

Follow Philip on Twitter: @PhilipRutnam.

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  1. Comment by Nathanael Lewis posted on

    As someone with mild autism I would say that the flexible lunch break suggested line is no improvement at all. If a lunch must be taken from 12 till 1, that's hardly flexible.....

    'You have one hour lunch break. You can start anytime between 12 noon and 1pm, but you can't have more than one hour'

    Or similar

  2. Comment by Nicky Ridler posted on

    Having ASD and Dyslexic can be particularly challenging every day and I am interested in specific changes in the recruitment procedure and how it is processed for disabled employees - such as Compentencies, interviews and how it can change. I have come across barriers and found it difficult and hard to deal with. People with Autism and Dyslexic are very bright and talented.

  3. Comment by Pete posted on


    With a son on the Spectrum who had just had to choose his 'options' in Secondary School, I really hope that in the coming years the figure rises from the measly 15% in employment at the moment and the career advice etc. out there significantly improves as at the moment 'general' inexperienced teachers are put into SENCO roles who know less than the parents. My other concern is the term 'talented young people with autism' - I'm not saying that my son doesn't have talents it's just that this term smacks a bit of purely looking to employ the Autistic IT / Maths geniuses that fall into the 'rainman' category when surely (as the condition covers) we should be looking at employment for people on the whole Spectrum as the majority would be happy doing a routine day to day role ie. getting any permanent employment & even if this is part time work, it will significantly help raise the level from the current 15%. Working in a department with nearly 6000 people, I see roles on a daily basis that could be done by people on the spectrum but fear that only a tiny % of them actually are.

  4. Comment by Andy posted on

    As someone with both Dyslexia and Autism, am particularly interested in any specific changes to the recruitment process? Providing situational examples in interviews and to a lesser extent Annual Performance reviews is so taxing and challenging for my brain to comprehend, that I will almost always avoid undertaking such events. Suspect that other persons in my position also avoid seeking promotion due to the recruitment process. Dealing with change and seeing the big picture is a weakness that most persons with Autism and Specific Learning difficulties face on a daily basis. Let’s hope that real change is made otherwise competent staff will be restricted to grades far below their potential abilities.

  5. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    I recently watched the BBC Programme "Employ Me" and I have to say that it had opened my eyes to the diificulties faced by many who have a disability and the fact that we tend to focus more on the disability rather than the person and the talents they have to offer.

    • Replies to Gavin Thomas>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Gavin, thanks for your comments. You are absolutely right that we tend to focus on the disability rather than ability and talents that someone has to offer. Awareness events and programmes such as the BBC programme “Employable Me” should help to change this.

  6. Comment by Gail Hawker posted on

    It is fantastic that the Civil Service is offering work placement opportunities to autistic people. It would be even more fantastic to know how many of those people went on to find permanent gainful employment so that the success of such initiatives could be fully gauged. At present, many charities are reporting a double hit for autistic people - they can't get or keep jobs, yet their inability to get or keep a job all too often falls on deaf ears when it comes to avoiding being slapped with a benefits sanction. I really like the interview suggestion given above - harks back to Specialisterne's approach, which uses a "show versus tell" methodology in lieu of a sit-down interview. But is anyone in the Civil Service actually prepared to recruit in this way? Would love to know if it's actually happening anywhere.

    • Replies to Gail Hawker>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Gail, thanks for your comments. The aim of the pilot programme was not just about securing employment for the young people. It was more about giving them the opportunity to build their skills and confidence in the workplace. The feedback from the four young people who completed the work placement has been very positive. One is studying art at Wimbledon University and feels that the work experience helped him to make this transition and travel independently, a second participant has set up his own travel consultancy business and has received a barrister scholarship which will start later this year, and a third has set up his own autism consultancy and has received mentoring on self-employment from colleagues he met at HMRC. Another has been successful on a work programme with Caretrade where he will take up opportunities in Guys and St Thomas’s Hospital.

      In addition to the programme, some business units have specifically targeted people with autism to fill skills gaps in areas such as digital. As mentioned in other blog comment responses and the ‘Talent Action Plan One Year On Report’ we are piloting new approaches to recruitment and selection with a diversity lens.

  7. Comment by Bev posted on

    From a parent of a child newly diagnosed with Autism at quite a late stage (he is about to sit his GCSEs) this news is welcomed. The thought of my child struggling to secure employment is one that reguarly concerns me as he has such limited people skills and comprehension issues that it is nice to see someone suggesting alternatives to interviews and detailing how they work now, written instructions chunked definitely make life easier!
    Is it possible that in the future such events as the lunch be held at other venues as it is not possible for some staff to travel to London for something that may be of value? In addition to could notes be provided on request on the information provided to delegates for those who are unable to get to the event itself?

    • Replies to Bev>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Bev, thanks for your comments. We will definitely consider holding “lunch and learn” sessions in other locations if there is sufficient demand. I also like your suggestion of providing notes for people unable to attend “lunch and learn” events and will put this in place for future events.

  8. Comment by Charles posted on

    Thank you.

    We have previously discussed over the family dinner table how our civil service view of 'recruiting in an open and fair competition' absolutely precludes recruiting people who cannot perform in an interview at all.

    And then my daughter said, you asked for recruitment in 'a fair and open competition', not an interview.

    Perhaps we should deliberately take her idea up.

    So a bit of workplace experience, real tasking and acclimatisation into jobs with a really tightly defined core and variable peripheral competences, so that the type of person they would suit would win them.

    Perhaps we need a good publically and professionally recognisable mental capability lexicon we can use so when we are looking for staff, we can use some key words that key groups can hook onto and bring forward their particular skills over and above their core competences or lack of them.

    And are we guilty of seeing that we should interview over a range of competences, insisting on 6 competences when only 1 truly matters and the others are luxuries. We like to have those other 5 to help us distinguish candidates and bring in like minded people who we will easily get on with. Perhaps the other 5 should be culled to two or three genuine required capabilites.

    I know I have not got the right answer, if there is one, and it will take many false starts across government to properly recognise people's skills, but we all have to start somewhere.

    • Replies to Charles>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Charles, thanks for your comments about using interviews and for your daughter’s alternative suggestion. We are currently piloting new approaches to recruitment and selection, using a diversity lens, and I will ensure that your blog feedback comments are passed on the person leading this work.

    • Replies to Charles>

      Comment by Alan posted on

      As someone with Autism who is currently fortunate enough to be working in Civil Service, this comment strongly resonated with me. I struggle with interviews and find them particularly challenging and stressful.

      The route I took to securing employment is as follows. I applied for a position then attended a written test which I passed. Then came the interview stage, and predictably I failed. I emailed the organisation in question asking if I could do unpaid experience pointing out my difficulties due to Autism. I had asked before but been refused. Fortunately this time I was offered some work to do. I was able to impress enough that I was offered a temporary contract, and subsequently a permanent one following an interview which was set up as a formality. This was at a lower grade than I had originally interviewed for. I was told soon after starting I was at a higher standard than they'd expect of a new recruit at the grade I originally interviewed for.

      I have subsequently reapplied and done more assessments for the next grade up, but every time keep getting stuck at the interview stage. Plus interviews take their toll on my mental health, which in turn affects my work. I ask for reasonable adjustments to be made. It would probably be inappropriate to go into much detail here on this issue, but ultimately they keep refusing citing "fair and open competition". The competition is hardly fair when other candidates have abilities I don't working to their advantage. This ultimately leaves me stuck with no means of progressing up to higher grades.

      I also have strong misgivings over the Civil Service Competency Framework, and Performance Management System.

      • Replies to Alan>

        Comment by Alan posted on

        For clarity by "abilities" I was referring to the lack of disability. I.e. abilities not necessarily requisite for doing the job itself.

  9. Comment by Zebedee Alby posted on

    There are many points to discuss. From the large to the minute. E.g. are the examples given of the value in the workplace of people with autism sufficiently strong to justify the extra effort, time and resources generally that managing them involves? How was the Asperger's Awareness Lunch and Learn session advertised who attended, because my first thought was I wanted to be there! Could a wide-ranging discussion be held which works through some of these issues please, with a recognition that things aren't really working well enough at the moment, and real improvement needs to be made?

    • Replies to Zebedee Alby>

      Comment by Philip Wyld posted on

      I have a grandson who is profoundly affected by this. But we have learned to celebrate his small triumphs, rather than look at his defeats.
      I am proud to be a part of an organisation that tries to celebrate their potential,, rather than just seeing the difficulties. We all have our little hobby horses, but there is only so much talent available, we cannot afford to scrap the essential powers that some of these people posses. Best of luck to those who are helping, those who may be applying, and those who promote this diversity

      • Replies to Philip Wyld>

        Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

        Philip, thanks for your feedback comments. You are absolutely right that there is a tendency to focus on an individual’s disability rather than ability. We need to change this and focus more on the skills and attributes that an individual can bring to an organisation. This will be a recurring message that I will seek to communicate in my role as Civil Service Disability Champion.

    • Replies to Zebedee Alby>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Zebedee, thanks for your comments. The adjustments required for people with autism can be quite small, such as relocating to a quieter area of the office, reconfiguring the job role to play to individual strengths, providing information in writing, etc. It often does not require lots of extra time and effort. The Aspergers “lunch and learn” session was very well received and we plan to hold a follow up event in September. If you email Amy Jones (, we will ensure that you receive an invite.

  10. Comment by Bob posted on

    I am really pleased to see the effort to raise awareness regarding autism. The prospects for young people on the autistic spectrum disorder to find meaningful employment is extremely poor. I look forward to the Civil Service taking the lead and positively making changes here to enable better employment opportunties in the future. The proof will be in the doing.

    • Replies to Bob>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Bob, thanks for commending our efforts to raise awareness about autism. You are absolutely right in stating that the proof is in the doing and we will be following this through with action, such as the autism work placement pilot to improve employment opportunities for talented young people with autism.

  11. Comment by David posted on

    As a parent of a 28 year old son, who because of minor brain damage caused at birth had autistic tendencies, I can vouch for the incredible skills of such people. In my sons case, it was as though he had a video recorder running permanently in his head and could instantly recall details of things that had happened on various dates over the previous 15-20 years. His memory was quite phenomenal. His visual perception enabled him to complete wordsearch puzzles in seconds and his ability to perform arithmetic calculations in his head was incredible. I remain convinced that had someone been able to teach him how to break codes he would have been fantastic at it. Upon hearing very short musical extracts he could instantly tell you the name of the song, artist, year and position in the music charts, the age of the artist, etc. Such was his memory.

    • Replies to David>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      David, thanks for sharing your son’s story. It brings to life my point in the blog that many talented people with autism have specific skills that would be an asset to most organisations.

  12. Comment by Richard Lamplough posted on

    There's really good content here Philip, but how do you, and other large blue-chip employers recruit people? Via the internet perhaps?

    I have supported people with learning disabilities and autism into work since 1994. In those days, in many ways, my job was so much easier. I would sit down with the person I was supporting, we would go through the local papers, we would have a phone round to local companies, we would maybe pop into the local job centre... and ACCESSING opportunities was so much easier than it is now.

    The internet, and how jobseekers are expected to apply for jobs via the internet can be a nightmare for many autistic people.

    Conversely, the internet has helped raised autism awareness issues around employment - and I use it a lot for this purpose.... then, of course, we have TV programmes like The Autistic Gardener and Employable Me, (these would never have been commissioned in 1994) but I'm not particularly feeling that "trickle down" effect when it comes to supporting my current crop of young people into real, permanent, jobs notwithstanding several success stories I've had over the last three years.

    The Civil Service have, I believe, the power to make positive change in everything I say here, so please feel free to talk to me about it!!

    Kind regards


    • Replies to Richard Lamplough>

      Comment by RS posted on


      In your post I have seen that you will will be running an autism work-placement programme aimed at young people with autism who have an interest in the public sector. Please can you tell me how I can find out more about this with a sibling with Autism, who may be suitable.



      • Replies to RS>

        Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

        Rachel, thank you for your interest in the autism work placement programme. Please contact Amy Jones (, who will provide you with further information on this year’s programme and how to apply.

    • Replies to Richard Lamplough>

      Comment by Philip Rutnam posted on

      Richard, thank you for your helpful feedback and insightful comments from first-hand experience of supporting people with learning disabilities into work. We are currently reviewing our outreach and recruitment processes with a disability lens to ensure that talented people with particular disabilities are not excluded. If you have any ideas you wish to share, please contact Amy Jones (, who will feed these in to the appropriate lead.