18 June celebrates Autistic Pride Day, an awareness day first celebrated in 2005 by the Aspires For Freedom (AFF) campaign group.
Includability is particularly proud to have Alex Manners, an Asperger's champion, TV and radio presenter, author, and public speaker as an ambassador to help neurodivergent job seekers find employment.
Alex was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age ten. He faced many challenges during his school years, with bullying, with wearing a school uniform and struggling with homework. He says some days at school were challenging for his mum as an overwhelming feeling would come over him and he would feel he just needed to get back home.
Despite the challenges, he never saw his Asperger’s as anything other than a positive thing. He says he was lucky to have a family that understood Asperger’s and that his dad taught him to see it as a special power ever since his diagnosis.
After he finished education, Alex wanted to educate others on what it is like to live with Asperger’s as he feels lucky to be able to stand up and tell his story and to not feel nervous about standing in front of people to tell them of his journey.
What inspired you to become a TV and radio presenter, and an Asperger’s advocate?
It was all when I left sixth form, my dad put me onto a TV presenter training course in Birmingham and I absolutely loved it. From that moment forward, that was what I want to do. I thought that TV presenting would be a great way for me to be able to educate people around autism and Asperger’s. Because I have Asperger’s, I really wanted to use that ability to be able to speak in front of people confidently, to educate and inspire people.
I had been interviewed a few times on the radio and TV, and I had seen one or two other people on different shows speaking about their Asperger’s and their autism. I thought to myself, wow! I had spoken about it before on the TV and radio and I would love to stand up and do talks about it. I put a talk together and started emailing as many different companies, schools and universities that I possibly could.
In your book, you tell a lot of stories about your family and how supportive have they been throughout your life?
My parents and my family have been really supportive. And I think without them, I would have had a lot more struggles and would have been in a lot more stressful situations. I feel really privileged to have such a large and supportive family because they have been instrumental. When I was younger, just taking two people for example, I was always ringing up my uncle Tim if I was stressed. If I was at school, and I needed someone to speak to, I was always ringing up my dad.
It's fantastic to have parents who really understand Asperger’s and are able to help me because like my dad, for instance, he fought so much to get me the support that I needed in school. Without him, I don't think I would have even got the support I was entitled without him being able to fight for what I needed.
One thing my parents have instilled in me is that positive mentality. To look upon my Asperger’s as something positive. Ever since I was diagnosed, the first thing my dad told me was that it was a positive thing that it gave me special powers.
We knew there would be struggles with having Asperger’s, but because of what my dad told me and the mentality that he instilled in me, I've always viewed it as something I feel lucky to have, and that I feel lucky to being able to manage it over the years.
What I wanted to do with my book was to tell people exactly what it is like to live with Asperger’s and to go to school with it. I wanted to show people there are others going through the same or similar challenges to what they may be going through. Another reason why I decided to write the book was just to inspire people to never ever let their circumstances hold them back.
When I was at school, I had some terrible experiences, but I have come out the other end and now I'm independent, I’ve got my business, I travel independently. I am doing some great things and I want people to see my story and say, ‘I can go on and achieve whatever I want to achieve’. To never let the circumstances hold them back.
Can you tell us more about your passion for football and the awareness you have brought through the Autism and Football campaign?
Ever since I was a little child, I have been kicking a ball around in the park. It was only when I was at about ten years old that my uncle Tim took me to my first ever match. From then on, I have absolutely been obsessed with football. About two years ago, I completed watching a match at all 92 professional clubs in the UK. I decided that because of my love of football, the fact that I have been to so many stadiums and because I wanted to raise awareness for Asperger's and autism. I wanted to start my own Autism and Football campaign to make match day experiences better for people with hidden disabilities.
I have worked with several clubs, including Arsenal. Aston Villa and Swansea City to educate them and advise them and help them in making their match day experiences from the stadiums and the tours more accessible for people like myself.
Sensory rooms are coming through for us now. A lot of clubs have the mentality though of, ‘we can't afford to put a sensory room into our ground’ or ‘maybe we don't have the room to put in a sensory room’. The message is I want to try and get across to clubs is you don't need a sensory room to be inclusive.
They can put things in place to enable people who maybe find a match day experience a bit more difficult to have a better experience. Even with having ear defenders at a match may not be enough. letting someone into a ground early and letting them through a bigger gate than a tiny turnstile, and not making them wait in a long queue. Those are all things that are completely free to do, and they do not really take up much time. These are the things that I think I want clubs to realise that they can do a lot of these things that enable us to have a better experience without spending any money or having to use up space.
How will you be celebrating autistic pride day?
Normally I would be at the autism show, but that is now online this year. I've got one of my presentations that I do all about my life living with Asperger’s on that day, hopefully I'll inspire and educate some more people.
Have you noticed more employers taking note of the day?
April is Autism Awareness Month and there are more companies now wanting to do things around that month relating to autism. I've been really busy myself with all my talks because a lot more companies are doing things to celebrate and to increase awareness around different disabilities and different cultures, and it's absolutely fantastic!
There is a lot more people who are being educated about it and wanting to learn more to help people who they may know as they have like hidden disabilities or autism within their family or within their workplace. There is a lot more awareness being raised.
Do you feel more employers taking the journey towards an authentic inclusion in the workplace?
There is still a long way to go to become truly inclusive, there is a lot more to do and more people to educate and inspire around what it means to have Asperger’s. Employers and a lot of people in general still have a preconceived idea that Asperger’s and autism is one specific thing and that is what I do with the work that I do is try and show them that everyone with Asperger’s and everyone with autism is different and to not treat everyone the same.
Everyone has their own traits and their own things that they find difficult or challenging, or ways that help them when they are feeling stressed, but a lot more employers are now taking notice. It is great to see that they are adopting policies and their employment processes to enable people with Asperger’s and autism to have a better experience and have more chance of obtaining employment.
What more do you think employers can do to support people on the autism spectrum?
One of the most important things they can do is to give as much as much information to a person with autism as they possibly can. Whether that is before they come in for an interview or before they start a job, because that means we can prepare for that situation better or prepare for when we start the job better.
Another thing that employers can do is adopt an individual approach. If an individual needs something changed, it might be something simple like, they hate wearing a tie or they don't want to sit by a window because there's so much light. Allowing the rules to be adapted and having empathy for every individual is really important.
A traditional interview can be difficult people with Asperger’s and autism because we struggle with interaction and communication. Maybe taking away a traditional interview and replacing it with a more practical interview, maybe practicing some of the tasks that we would be doing if we secured the job would be a much better way to see the wonderful skills that people like myself can bring into an organisation.
There is a lot of ways organisations can help people with Asperger's and autism that will cost absolutely nothing and would be easy to implement. They may be beneficial for other people as well.
Is there more that can be done to better differentiate different types of needs?
It is really important that people with Asperger’s, if they feel comfortable, to tell their employers that they have Asperger’s or autism because then their employers will be able to accommodate them better. Sometimes it can be difficult for them to say that they have it because they don't know how people will react. It is important to have at least one person within your organisation that a person with Asperger’s or autism can go to and to speak to if they are feeling stressed, anxious, or if they need something put in place to help them to work better. Having a quiet place that they can go to is important as well, I know that was beneficial for me at school.
Being inclusive and promoting the fact that you are an inclusive employer will enable other people to apply for jobs that maybe people would not have done so before. It will enable those who may not feel that confident in telling others that they have Asperger's or autism to come forward. If they see articles on the company website or if they see other people in the organisation coming out and saying, ‘this is my disability, this is how I function’. They may feel more confident, and comfortable in doing so.
How has the pandemic affected the job market for disabled and neurodivergent people?
It has been difficult because there are fewer jobs around, and people are struggling to find employment. After speaking to a lot of people, being able to work online has benefited many people I know who have autism because they're not having to go into a really busy office or commute on busy trains. They are also able to work in an environment totally suited to their needs.
When I am working at home, I'm in an environment that's totally suited to my needs, there's no loud noises, the blinds can be closed so there is no light coming through. It is a much better environment for me to work in and because I'm working at home on my own, it stopped me from worrying about all the social interaction that a lot of people with autism may find difficult in a workplace. Continued working from home would benefit a lot of people with autism, which I think is, is a brilliant thing.
If an autistic employee needs something adapting, if it doesn't affect the way they work and if it doesn't affect anyone else, if it helps them to actually get more work done and to work more productively. Then, that is a great thing.
If more and more companies understand that working from home helps a lot of people with Asperger's. Continued working from home is going to help a lot more people with autism and Asperger's obtain employment.
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