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Poland’s Autistic Workforce: A Hidden Potential

CAREERSPoland's Autistic Workforce: A Hidden Potential

Only about 2 percent of the 400,000 autistic individuals in Poland are professionally employed, a figure that is nearly at the margin of statistical error. In the entire EU, this rate is over five times higher. “For neurodivergent individuals, the lack of a job equates to certain social exclusion,” says Aleksandra Wesołowska-Sieja from the JiM Foundation. In her view, most autistic individuals – given appropriate systemic support – would be able to work, not only improving their own lifestyle, but also significantly contributing to economic development. According to estimates by the Polish Economic Institute, an optimistic scenario of increased professional activity among autistic individuals could annually bring an additional 14 billion PLN to the state budget, covering about one third of the costs of the 500+ program.

It is estimated that about 20 percent of the Polish population falls within the spectrum of neurodiversity, which includes conditions like ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, autism spectrum, and other disorders such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia. This number is increasing, as reflected in the statistics on diagnosing autism – according to data from the Supreme Audit Office, the number of students diagnosed with autism is increasing by about 20 percent annually.

“We estimate that among individuals on the autism spectrum, 2 to 25 percent of them are professionally active; these are worryingly low numbers. These 2 percent concern individuals with intellectual disabilities, while the 25 percent are so-called high-functioning individuals, i.e., those with normal intellectual ability. However, this is still too small a percentage,” says Aleksandra Wesołowska-Sieja.

From a report prepared by the JiM Foundation in cooperation with the Polish Economic Institute (“The Road to Opening the Job Market in Poland for Autistic Individuals”), it turns out that there are currently about 400,000 autistic individuals in Poland, but only about 2 percent of them are professionally employed. Some of them are also underemployed.

“In European countries, the situation varies depending on the society we are dealing with. In strongly civic societies, such as Great Britain, the situation is much better, as well as in Scandinavian countries. However, when it comes to neurodivergent individuals in France or Germany, their situation is unfortunately much more difficult. Looking at Poland, there is still a lot to be done, starting with diagnosis and access to it, education and opening up of the job market,” lists the Communication Manager at the JiM Foundation.

It is estimated that there are about 5 million individuals in the autism spectrum across Europe. Regardless of their support needs, they encounter significant misunderstanding and discrimination in all aspects of their lives, including education and vocational training. This is later reflected in poor employment rates. Unemployment among individuals in the autism spectrum is disproportionately high across the EU – the employment rate of such individuals is less than 10 percent, significantly lower than for the whole population of disabled individuals (47 percent).

In Poland, the situation is even worse – the employment rate among individuals in the autism spectrum is five times lower than the EU average (2 percent) and almost at the margin of statistical error. It is also 13 times lower than for the entire population of disabled individuals in Poland (26.4 percent). Furthermore, according to research conducted by the JiM Foundation, up to two-thirds of working individuals in the autism spectrum admit that their salary is unsatisfactory and does not allow them to live independently.

“For neurodivergent individuals, lack of work first and foremost equals certain social exclusion, which they realistically face already at school, from early childhood. This intensifies later on, when they can’t find a job and can’t actively participate in social life. This, of course, is also associated with poverty and the feeling among neurodivergent individuals out of work, that there’s no place for them in society,” says Aleksandra Wesołowska-Sieja.

The autism spectrum is a complex, very broad concept. It includes disorders characterized by abnormalities in behavior, communication, social relationships, and cognitive functions. Included in this are profound disorders that make independent functioning in adulthood impossible, as well as mild disorders that with appropriate guidance do not hinder normal functioning (so-called high-functioning autism). Therefore, the autism spectrum does not necessarily mean intellectual disability; rather, each autistic individual has slightly different severity and symptom profile. Many of them, however, have sensory problems, particularly restrictive and repetitive behaviors, and specific interests unique to themselves. It happens that they interact in a way that may be considered incomprehensible to others.

Just like every neurotype, the autism spectrum also has strong points, which can be desirable from employers’ perspective. Individuals with such disorders are characterized by highly developed analytic thinking, problem-solving skills, very high level of concentration and ability to focus on repetitive tasks. According to data from JP Morgan Chase, quoted by consulting firm PwC, employees participating in the Autism at Work initiative make fewer mistakes and are up to 90–140 percent more productive than neurotypical employees.

According to a report prepared by the JiM Foundation in cooperation with the Polish Economic Institute, the vast majority of autistic individuals, given appropriate systemic support, would be able to work, not only improving their own lifestyle, but also significantly contributing to the country’s economic development.

“Every 100 PLN spent on activation programs for neurodivergent individuals would bring 500 PLN of income to the budget,” says the Communication Manager at the JiM Foundation.

According to a moderate scenario, public finances would gain additional income of 11.9 billion PLN annually from taxes and insurance contributions in the years 2022–2050. Professional activation of individuals in the autism spectrum would also provide an average annual GDP growth impulse of almost 17 billion PLN (from 2022 to 2050, the total contribution would reach as much as 492.6 billion PLN).

In an optimistic scenario, the benefits would be even greater – the average annual contribution would reach almost 23 billion PLN, which would mean nearly 7.8 percent higher GDP. Professional activation of individuals in the spectrum of autism by 2050 would increase the Polish economy by almost 672 billion PLN. In turn, public finances would gain additional annual income of 14 billion PLN, which would cover one third of the costs of the 500+ program. The increased activation of caregivers for autistic individuals would also have a significant impact on the economy.

“When it comes to changes in the job market that should occur, we really need a systemic change and a change in the thinking of employers, but also of coworkers and their approach to neurodivergent individuals. It’s about recognizing difficulties and mitigating them, but also noticing talents and competences that these individuals can bring to an organization,” emphasizes Aleksandra Wesołowska-Sieja.

According to the report “The Road to Opening the Job Market in Poland for Autistic Individuals,” over 60 percent of Poles believe that autistic individuals can undertake active work. The same percentage declares that – being employers – they would hire individuals in the autism spectrum. Despite this, relatively few companies decide to do so in practice.

“The main barrier from the employers’ point of view is still the low awareness of how neurodivergent individuals function, and what kind of employees they are and can be. Raising this awareness is crucial for there to be more such individuals in the job market,” explains the expert. “From the workers’ side, there’s also a fear of misunderstanding, lack of acceptance, and anxiety about whether they will manage in a given position. Looking from the perspective of neurodivergent individuals, sometimes the job-search stage itself is difficult, resulting among others from low self-confidence in their ability and competences, but unfortunately also from the education system, and the way these individuals are prepared to enter the job market.”

According to the JiM Foundation report, the way to improve the current situation is cooperation of specialists from various fields and on many levels: from politicians responsible for systemic changes, to therapists who prepare individuals on the autism spectrum to take up work, and social workers who would be able to advise and support their charges both in obtaining a job and once they get it. An increase in awareness about autism among employers and coworkers is also necessary.

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