Autism and the Legal Profession: Challenging Stereotypes, Breaking Down Barriers

By Jonathan Andrews

Published on September 8, 2015

Autism and the legal profession currently exist in a strange and convoluted relationship. Whilst some professions widely acknowledge the existence and benefits of autistic professionals, this inclusive and forward thinking attitude is largely lacking in the legal sector. Take the banking industry, which employs openly autistic people; or tech hubs like Silicon Valley, famed for a high percentage of autistic workers.

Even professional services firms, not the most famed as “autism hubs”, have nonetheless made great strides, with Ernst & Young now having an internal Autism Networking Group. If it wants to remain competitive, the legal profession should be looking to these industries and the autistic people within them for inspiration.

In a time where serious banking and tech publications openly speculate on the ‘Asperger advantage’, such openness seems absent in the legal profession. This is, without a doubt, a great shame – autistic people can bring much to an employment setting, indeed as they can in any other setting.

A prime illustration of the mutually beneficial possibilities is Goldman Sachs’ business analyst Jonathan Young. Whilst on a work placement, Young made such an outstanding impression that he was subsequently offered a contract of employment. Surely this evidences the rewarding potentials that can be achieved by all if companies are willing to think outside of the box – indeed, the best legal practitioners are those that do so.

Even Whitehall is beginning to recognise the skills those with autism have, so much so that institutions such as HMRC and DWP have begun to pilot special insight schemes in order to recruit the very best. In the era of austerity cutbacks, this really does say a lot!

Yet save for a few brief, dare one say tokenistic, examples of law firms such as Clifford Chance and Ashurst employing autistic people in behind the scenes roles – and as analysts and admin assistants, not qualified lawyers – discussion of autism in law from an employment perspective is practically non-existent.

The age old assumption that high-functioning autistic people are only good with number crunching actually falls foul of reality. Yes, we do exist in heavily transactional fields like banking, but our abilities are not defined by this. This stereotypical ‘one box fits all’ approach does not further society’s interests; it actually prohibits advancement.

Many autistic people are very competently employed in a wide range of professions. Despite what society may be led to believe, people with forms of autism are versatile and able to communicate with people within a professional environment. In fact, there are numerous examples of those with autism being proficient in this area, such as American law student Erik Weber. Diagnosed with autism as a child, and institutionalised by the state due to a lack of understanding, he recently passed the American Bar exam on his first attempt.

Do these attitudes create a paradox of sorts? I certainly think so. Few people I’ve spoken to genuinely believe that no one with autism exists in law, yet many are very surprised to learn that I myself have recently managed to secure a training contract with a top firm whilst being completely open about being autistic. I’ve come to believe the reason people think like this is due to a cultural belief that, to succeed as an autistic person, one must be “closeted”. Whilst this is not untrue per se, this carries unhelpful baggage.

Unfortunately, if true, this does not help equality, or increase autism awareness. It probably ensures that when it comes to the legal workplace, people identify “autism” not by self-disclosures, but by stereotype: scanning the office for those they assume must fit the bill, simply because they’re “odd”. The predictable conclusion to such circumstance is that the age-of human trait of confirmation bias inevitably takes hold – those who assume there is nothing more to having autism than being rude, obnoxious, or overly shy tend to (from my experience) pick out such people, label them (privately, of course, under a don’t ask, don’t tell assumption), and never learn anything more about the condition. Sadly, the workplace in general – undoubtedly including the legal profession – still has a way to go regarding understanding and inclusivity.

But what of the legal workplace? Will I and others be afforded the respect and dignity that everyone deserves, irrespective of circumstance? Certainly, truisms like “all lawyers are autistic” are not immediately encouraging, clearly inaccurate and built on stereotype, yet perhaps this may bear some unknown fruit; will I be enlisting into a team of autistic super brains? Of course, there are concerns which warrant apprehension, such as the office banter, the sadly predictable use of the word “autism” branded about as though some form of insult, the equivalent of “pendant”. Such concerns are reinforced by the cultural trend of laughing or making fun of things we don’t understand at a particular time.

For far too often, when autism is referred to in the context of the legal profession, it appears to be for cheap laughs. For example the widely popular legal blog ‘Roll on Friday’ recently published a piece called ‘11 things lawyers say about lawyers and what they actually mean’, the premise, to exposes the ‘code’ of seemingly complimentary phrases used by lawyers for colleagues. Number nine’s ‘code’ is “John is very good at the blackletter law stuff”, the translation (or should that be punchline?) is “John is so far along the spectrum he can barely speak to people”. I doubt the authors wrote this to deliberately offend autistic people, and as can be seen in the comments, many found humour in it. But it does suggest a level of ignorance, a tendency to define autism by stereotypes of extreme autism, and to use the term as an insult. Yet this mindset is not unique to the article, and it would be wrong to condemn it too harshly; it is only following the wider workplace trend.

I’ve come to believe these attitudes hold sway for two reasons. Firstly, they allow people to sit back and ignore the issue because they assume there isn’t one, ie if autistic people are overrepresented, as opposed to being underrepresented in law, then all is right with the world. Yet as can be seen with the Roll on Friday jokes, this neglects to sufficiently investigate and or understand the true possibilities. I think it’s synonymous with the same mentality as those – largely men – who blame the lower number of women in senior positions entirely on biological factors. The result of such ‘Just World Thinking’ is a belief that nobody’s being unfairly disadvantaged, and nothing needs addressing.

Secondly, this conceals a very real truth about people already in law who, had they been born in the decades following the explosion in autism diagnoses, would likely have been diagnosed as autistic themselves. Researchers are uncertain as to what percentage of the rise in autism diagnoses are due to wider diagnostic criteria rather than a genuine increase, but the lower estimate is around 60% (with 100% being the higher end).

Whichever statistic is believed, the majority of new cases are likely in fact due to a change in terminology, and a cultural widening of the autism spectrum, meaning many people born in earlier generations without autism diagnoses would have very likely received one, were they millennials. This does not mean they are ‘autistic’, and this identity should not be forced upon them or define them; but it does mean that those now disclosing autism and Asperger’s diagnoses on application forms will have several traits in common with these current employees.

If employers were more aware of this, and the advantages Autistic people can bring eg problem-solving skills, higher attention to detail, more punctuality, a greater determination to succeed in ‘their’ field, and more loyalty to employers, on average – then perhaps awareness of the positives of autism could shine through far more brightly.

As it is, the stereotypes which are largely negative, and are defined far more by what people can’t do than what they can – pervade. So, why do we need autistic visibility in law..should autistic people be speaking out?

One could well argue that those already in the profession, but not speaking about themselves, have no obligation to do so, certainly not a legal or ethical obligation but I say nothing of morality. And one could be absolutely correct, in the sense that nobody should be forced to disclose for any reason. But it is wholly different and utterly inaccurate to suggest that this lack of visibility has no negative repercussions. This may result in people with autism being forced to speak out as opposed to true cultural changes within employment, we have to ask ourselves whether this is actually fair?

Think back to the Roll on Friday joke; nothing about John’s own experience is discussed, only how he appears autistic to others, and when “autism” itself is something which cannot even be spoken, it’s highly unlikely this stems from any disclosure on John’s part. But that’s because the autism being discussed is not a diagnosis, or a self-identification; it’s a crude stereotype, applied to someone judged to be deficient and incapable of a key competency of professional law – people skills. Because there is so little autism visibility, depictions like this understandably prevail, where “diagnosis” relies on the hearsay of others, and misinformation abounds because there’s no-one willing to set the record straight. Open discussion and debate is a fundamental requirement on the path to change.

It is hoped that demographics will revolutionise society’s image and appreciation of those primarily affected . With autism diagnosis rates shooting up among children in the 1990s, millennials now in their early 20s and late teens are the first generation in which the vast majority of cases of autism have been identified. And many of those with traits and abilities very similar to current employees will bear the marker of ‘autistic’. Yet many millennials, myself included, view this not as a pathological “label” to be shaken off and hidden, but an identity to take pride in and embrace; employers should do likewise.

There is a risk that, like many young LGBT and other marginalised groups and individuals, young autistic people choose openness in education and their private life, but “return to the closet” when applying for jobs; statistics for other disabilities also suggest a risk of this. But it would be a gross mistake to think nothing can be done to remedy the situation. We have a golden opportunity to discuss autism from our own and others perspective; to demonstrate that the stereotypes aren’t always true and tend to be oversimplified; to discuss the positives of autism and of openness; and to show the world what we’re capable of. To do otherwise fails to acknowledge the gravity of situation, and the many skills and attributes held by those with autism – in all its forms.

Openness and self-advocacy cannot be confined to the blog-sphere and theory – they need to gain traction within the professions too, so we can demonstrate to employers the benefits of hiring autistic employees. “Autistic John” holds sway because there is nobody standing up and challenging this caricature. This doesn’t require militancy; it only needs openness, for people to be comfortable being who they are at work, and for others to see that autism is more than a stereotype or insult.

The Author

Jonathan is a future trainee solicitor at Reed Smith LLP. As a child, he was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and now aims to raise awareness of autism and other disabilities across the professions, but particularly in law.

He works with charities and organisations such as Ambitious about Autism, Aspiring Solicitors, and My Plus Consulting. He has also been shortlisted for the National Diversity Awards for his work raising autism awareness, and in his spare time, he enjoys creative writing and poetry.

Article picture: SPOTSOFLIGHT via Pixabay


Law & Philosophy