Autistic chief speaks out over impact of pandemic
‘I can’t be sure if I’m going to get discriminated against … There will be boards who would not be taking me’
ONE of the UK’s leading business lobbyists has revealed publicly that she is autistic in an article for The Daily Telegraph.
Charlotte Valeur, chairman of the Institute of Directors, is backing a campaign by Autistica, a charity, to raise money to research how coronavirus has affected autistic people.
Ms Valeur said she decided to speak out because of the potential consequences for autistic people of the upheaval caused by the pandemic.
Daily routines used by many autistic people to reduce unpredictability have been upended by lockdown, the use of face masks and the lack of clarity on social distancing rules.
Only 16pc of autistic people were in full-time employment before the pandemic and it is feared the figure will fall during the crisis. The former investment banker, who was a director of the BT Pension Fund and engineering firm Laing O’Rourke, said there was a lack of understanding of autism in business.
She fears that by going public, she could lose job opportunities. She said: “I can’t be sure if I’m going to get discriminated against because of this … There will be boards who would be not taking me because of this and I have to be prepared for that.”
Ms Valeur said that in an unsuccessful interview for one board role she was asked how she would deal with the need for empathy, a question that appeared to be rooted in a misconception that autistic people lack empathy.
“I just don’t know where that [question] came from, other than they felt very uncomfortable with me,” she said.
Ms Valeur, who was bullied incessantly and beaten up as a child, said that being on the autism spectrum affected how she worked and that she did not feel comfortable networking at drinks events, for example.
The UK’s 700,000 autistic citizens were already disadvantaged before coronavirus. Now too many face a bleak future with much of the limited progress made in recent years threatening to go into reverse.
As autistic leaders in business and the charity world, we know only too well how many on the autism spectrum are marginalised, neglected and overlooked, despite the benefits that many autistic citizens can bring to business and society. Outcomes are unacceptable: research shows that people with a diagnosis of autism face low educational attainment relative to their potential, one of the highest rates of unemployment in society despite often being highly qualified, much higher rates of early death, poor mental and physical health, and very limited social inclusion.
Giving autistic people the same opportunities that neurotypical people enjoy would benefit all of us.
We have both wrestled with the challenge of deciding when to be open about our diagnosis and how we might be disadvantaged by society’s outdated attitudes. We’ve both been at the forefront of efforts to increase autistic representation in the boardroom and the workforce, because we know just how brilliantly the autistic brain can find new solutions.
Being autistic has given us both an immense amount of creativity, drive and focus. Just as with the other critical conversations happening now around diversity, if companies actively embrace neurodiversity, it’s not just about doing good as an employer: it’s good for team performance and the bottom line.
In response to high-profile scandals and neglect, the NHS and the Government have begun to attach more importance to autism in recent years, making it a national priority for the health service and committing to a new national autism strategy.
But the sheer scale of the challenge remains huge and both the pandemic and an insufficient focus on autism during the recovery threaten to undo that slow and painful progress.
We are calling on the Government and business leaders to help us change
‘Autistic people and their families must have an equal right and access to high-quality research’
decades of neglect and support a strategic approach to how we identify, support and care for autistic people, right across the spectrum.
As we focus on building a stronger, more caring society, we want the rights of autistic people to be understood, valued and protected.
This is no longer optional, or just nice to have. Research conducted during lockdown shows many people with an autism diagnosis are reporting serious deterioration in their mental health, with many extremely anxious and depressed, and growing numbers self-harming and appearing to be at even greater risk of suicide than before.
While many of us are hopeful about a return to the new normal, large numbers of autistic people and their families are fearful of the future.
There was already a lack of access to much-needed mental health services and we hear that since March, that has got worse.
Only 16pc of diagnosed autistic people were in full-time work before Covid-19; our fear is that this already unacceptable employment gap will widen. Finding the solutions to long-standing structural inequalities faced by autistic people and their novel problems caused by coronavirus can’t be based on guesswork or good intentions. For most people and for most conditions, just as we’ve seen with Covid-19, we don’t accept best guesses. We demand evidence and we rapidly create the structures for generating it.
Autistic people and their families must have an equal right and access to high-quality research, evidence and data, informed by their views and experiences. This is absolutely critical to building back better and well within our reach as a society.
Autistica’s new Know More fund will back urgent new research, co-designed with autistic people, to ensure that we aren’t further marginalised after the pandemic, and that services and systems are developed to meet everyone’s needs.
It is our duty as citizens to know more about autism and autistic people’s experiences.
No more scandals in care homes. No more abuse and neglect. No more needs and rights unmet. No more talent wasted. No more lives lived in the margins. It’s time to Know More.
Companies in the City of London and elsewhere could benefit from more neurodiversity