According to the National Health Portal of India, an estimated 18 million people in the country are believed to be living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a group of developmental disabilities involving social, communication, and behavioural challenges. Despite the significant number of people living with autism, there is very little awareness about the developmental disorder in the country, leading to exclusion in schools, colleges, the workplace, and society.
Advocacy group Action For Autism (AFA), says there is a need to create an inclusive environment for people with autism to enable them to contribute as fully participating members of their community. This means creating a barrier-free environment where they feel comfortable. To facilitate that, it is important to understand autism and its related conditions.
Autism is a neurological condition and developmental disorder that first manifests by the time a person is around three years old. These differences in development can appear in three main areas: communication (verbal and non-verbal), social interactions, and imagination — which can be seen in repetitive and restricted play or leisure activities. This is referred to as the triad of impairments. This means that many individuals with autism ‘sense’ the world differently, creating behaviour patterns and atypical ways of relating to people, objects and events which others may not identify with.
With the theme of this year’s World Autism Awareness Day being “Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World”, it is crucial to bridge the gap at the workspace and provide employment opportunities to the thousands who are living on the autism spectrum and enter the workplace every year.
Take the example of Debashree Mishra, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of three. With therapy, she was able to successfully complete her Class X Board exams with a 9.4 Cumulative Grade Point Average. She says that disability is just another term in the dictionary and one is only disabled if they stop trying. Having actively participated in various events and represented her school in solo music competitions, she has also won several prizes at international competitions.
Even though she is not currently employed or looking for job opportunities, she says, “I hope the place where I choose to work is safe and offers equal opportunities to people with or without disabilities.” The good news is that several companies have now started creating more equal employment opportunities for people with autism. These include SAP Labs India, IBM, Haati Kaapi, Cisco, Dell, Capgemini, and organisations in the hospitality and retail sector.
However, it is an ongoing challenge for many employees with autism. Naman Misra, a model and photographer with autism, has very strong views and opinions on the inclusion of autistic people in the workspace.
He says, “The employers think that we might not be able to finish the work before the given deadlines, or we might not be able to work at a stretch to finish a crucial task. They make up their mind and form perceptions about us without even knowing who we are and how we work.”
Naman also feels that the government should have done more to offer support to people who were laid off when the pandemic hit.
Another photographer with autism, Anshuman Kar, says that employers need to understand that people with autism have certain needs to function well. “Many people do not fully understand autism. Opening up ‘autism friendly’ workspaces for our sensory sensitivities will be good. We have unique skills and strengths. We work well in our own bubble when we have a good support system.” says Anshuman.
Inclusivity for all
The law is also in favour of companies encouraging a more diverse workforce. Employers ensuring that at least five percent of their staff are people with disabilities (PwD) can avail various incentives under Section 41 of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and full Participation) Act, 1995. The National Policy for Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, also provides awards, tax exemptions etc. to companies employing PwDs. But its greatest advantage is that it brings diversity to the workplace, and sensitises people about colleagues with autism and other disabilities.
“Lack of exposure creates the greatest divide in the society,” says Merry Barua, Founder, Action for Autism. She believes that it is the responsibility of employers and society to ensure greater acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum in the mainstream.