Autism In The Workplace
Last Updated on 4th April 2023 by Sophie Elvins-Payne
What is Autism?
Autism is not something you can see with the naked eye.
However, Autism is a superpower.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (known as ASD) describes a group of neurological development conditions. People with ASD often behave, communicate, and learn in different ways from the rest of us. The most common struggle is the ability to communicate and interact with others. Mental Health issues also go hand in hand with ASD. These are anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit disorder/hyperactivity disorder. But you need to remember this depends on the person and will not be the same for all.
Here are a few common signs of Autism.
- Finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling
- Anxious in social interactions
- Seeming blunt and not interested without meaning to
- Thinking literally
- Having a set routine everyday and struggle with changes to it
Effects on Adults
Life can be difficult for everyone, however adults with Autism particularly struggle during social interactions and judging social cues, finding it difficult to recognise someone’s tone, gestures and to maintain a conversation. Think about the last engaging conversation you had. You were most likely nurturing the conversation, understanding gestures such as the tone of voice and figures of speech. This can be difficult for someone with ASD, as they could miss a cue to talk or interrupt a conversation differently to what you might expect. When this happens just remind yourself, they are not trying to be rude they are trying to engage in the conversation, the best that they can.
You should also be aware that sounds, textures, and smells will also have a significant impact, and may lead to sensory overload. The person will become very stressed and anxious, sometimes inconsolable. To defuse the situation there are many methods you can use. I will go into further detail on how to support someone experiencing sensory overload, and the challenges they face, within the workplace shortly.
A site that I found useful when I was expanding my knowledge was this help guide Autism at Work – HelpGuide.org
Again and again, I’m going to repeat that autism is a superpower. So, when you hire someone with Autism, you will be likely to gain a highly skilled worker. Those with ASD are often considered to be hyper focused in various situations and regarding obsessive subjects, such as their work. Here are a few things in which an autistic employee is skilled and would be likely to excel at.
- Extensive knowledge on certain subjects
- Technical ability
- Information recall
- Logical problem solving
- Attention to detail
However, due to ASD not being a liner spectrum, these traits may not be apparent. When these aspects are apparent, they will be embedded into the person and come alive when placed in the right environment. Like everyone, your employee will perform above average when they are happy, engaged, and passionate about their work. For example, have you ever spoken to someone caught up in the passion of a subject they are invested in? They will talk about this for hours in great detail and with zeal. If you engage with a person who has ASD in this way, you will have a better level of communication between both of you. Engaging in this way will promote them to have pride and confidence in their work and in everything you see them do, generating new ideas and solutions, benefitting your company. As your employee will be thinking logically about every decision they make.
As an employer, recognising these skills and hiring someone with Autism shows your commitment to equality and diversity to the disability community, considering a minority of Autistic people struggle to find employment. In 2019 a rough estimate said that 16% of Autistic adults are currently employed. It was in either full-time or paid employment. The stat is extremely concerning as it demonstrates how the stigma of ASD has affected the workplace and the diversity within organisations. As industries and workplaces are evolving it is now time to think of innovative ways to help someone with ASD. By having struggles to find employment the person with ASD will stay highly loyal to your company.
While Autism is a superpower it comes with a lot of difficulties too, such as discrimination and bullying. Many who go into employment may face discrimination, or rejection. The stigma around Autism can cause unconscious bias. This is because stereotypes can lead to people believing many different things. Discrimination is a subject that cannot be ignored, even though discrimination may be accidental, it is very harmful, and you should recognise the signs swiftly and deal with it appropriately. If discrimination does occur in the workplace, ASD is covered by the Disability Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010 among others.
People in the workplace can be ignorant towards the condition as they may not have a clear understanding of Autism or believe in the stigmas surrounding it. As a result of this, employees may see the Autistic person as “weird” or “strange”. Effectively being dismissive. To resolve this, you can educate colleagues/employees about autism and the challenges.
An example of a situation that could arise in the workplace, unless employees have been previously educated about Autism, is that a person with ASD could take ‘banter’ very literally causing a misunderstanding in communication. The best way to approach this type of situation would be to find out what is causing the problem. One-to-one sessions is one of the best ways of doing this. You may need to think laterally. For example, the stress may not be caused by difficulty in the job, It can be by a colleague, not being explicit in their instructions, things not working efficiently (such as a computer crashing), or by difficulties in their work. Try and think around the potential issues that could cause stress ahead of time, as well as, working towards getting at the root of the problem and discuss solutions that would work best for them in those scenarios. Preparation and understanding is key, being forearmed with a list of potential solutions to a stress inducing situation could help resolve it more efficiently and effectively.
Further challenges to be considered include the following.
- Understanding body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact
- Knowing how to start and maintain a conversation
- Judging how much information to give
- Thinking in abstract ways or considering “what if?” scenarios
- Varying their tone of voice to find the appropriate level of formality
Can Autistic People Work in the Workplace?
Yes, as mentioned an autistic person carries many different qualities such as being honest, reliable, and punctual which will benefit you and your team. Companies that have already invested in a program to help the disability community have seen an employee retention of up to 30%. In addition to this, these companies have also been seen to out-perform in total shareholders.
“Auticon”, which is a successful technology company, is known for its investment into employees with ASD. As all their “IT consultants” have Autism. One such consultant is “Will” who is a prime example of an Autistic employee thriving when placed in the right working environment. Will is currently a QA analyst in the US and has been working for the company for the past 5 years. Auticon has allowed him to grow a career and work with many professional bodies.
Autism and Workplace Burnout?
Autistic burnout is a form of distress. This can be a form of chronic life distress and a mismatch of expectations and abilities. It can be seen by long-term exhaustion, loss of function and reduced tolerance of stimuli. This will be affecting every part of this person’s life and can last for a long period of time. This can take a toll on mental and physical health. This information is referenced by the National Autistic Society.
Workplace burnout can occur due to the following behaviours.
- Masking autistic traits
- Difficult expectations
- Stress and life changes
Here are also a few ways in which you could help.
- Acceptance and support
- Access to external resources
- Formal Support
Below are links to guides and experts who have an extensive knowledge of this subject.
- Understanding autistic burnout (autism.org.uk)
- Autistic fatigue – a guide for autistic adults (autism.org.uk)
- Autistic burnout, explained | Spectrum | Autism Research News (spectrumnews.org)
Where do Autistic Workers Thrive
Jobs that require attention to detail, efficiency, logical thinking, and retention will attract a person with ASD.
Why you ask? A person with ASD sees the world differently.
As previously mentioned, autistic people have great attention to detail and focus. This allows them to search through a lot of information and keep focused for longer periods. So, when you give strong and specific instructions and set routines, they will be followed to a T. Structure, sequences, and orders are a part of the person’s daily life. So, incorporating this can ease the pressure of change, which is another challenge that affects those with ASD. The change to a routine can distress a person which can cause sensory overload.
Hiring Someone with Autism
When hiring someone who happens to have ASD it may be worth considering investing into workplace programmes that are specifically designed to help them acclimate, you may even find that these new processes help your other employees. A program in which you can invest is the “Autism at work programme” which is fully supported by “The National Autistic Society”. They offer a work coach to help settle your employee settle into the workplace. These coaches provide 1-1 sessions to help with any concerns or challenges. Overall, this program has helped over 2,000 employees in the UK since 2018.
One such person is “Jerrel”.
Jerrel is currently a Data Business Analyst at HM Revenues and Customs. Prior to this, he was out of work for several months. The consequence of his employment gap was that he didn’t get any response from employers. After this struggle of finding work, he found out about the program and applied. Once applied, Jerrel was given a work coach to assist him with his social and communication skills. As he quoted that this “feels like a prolonged challenge”. During this time, he worked with his coach to achieve his goal, gaining qualifications and skills to get into his current role. Now he is doing well and has quoted that “his role is going well despite working from home. As his colleagues and managers have put a lot of effort into supporting him whenever he needs it and plans to work harder and give his best effort”.
The first step begins with your job advert, making changes to simplify it and cut out the jargon. Phrases such as “excellent communication” or “good team player” are incredibly common. To an Autistic person, this can immediately put them off applying. Removing cliche phrases will help and encourage more people to apply.
The job interview can be one of the biggest challenges to an Autistic person getting into work. “Traditional” interviews rely heavily on social competency and communication meaning Autistic candidates are likely to struggle to “sell themselves”. A way you can make this easier is to email or to give them a phone call and assist in preparing for the interview. Doing this, allows you to keep things formal, professional, and keeps up regular communication.
Before the Interview
Steps that should be taken prior to the interview.
- Give plenty of opportunities for a person to let you know that they are Autistic before the interview
- Make it clear that disclosing their Autism diagnosis will mean that they will be supported appropriately, and then discuss available support and adaptations in the workplace available to them
It is also important not to rely on behavioural cues when making judgements about an Autistic interviewee’s abilities or credibility. As these can often be misleading.
Here’s how to make interviews better for Autistic people.
- Giving clear and concise written or visual information about the interview
- Clear directions to the office
- Names of people who will be on the interview panel
- Asking specific questions that require specific details, examples, and certain types of information
- If the question has more than one part, ask each one in turn. Autistic people sometimes find it difficult to remember lots of information at once
- Provide them with a printout of the questions, so they can refer to them during the interview. This can help them structure their responses and keep on track
During the Interview
An interview with someone with ASD is a big deal to them. They are going into a room to meet all new people and are experiencing new things. Your preparation before the interview should have helped this process.
Here are some examples of how job interview questions can be adapted for Autistic candidates:
‘Tell me a little bit about yourself’
‘I’m going to ask you to give me a short introduction about yourself. Please tell me:
- What are your best personal characteristics?
- What are your educational qualifications?
- What work experience do you have?’
‘What are some of your strengths?’
‘I’m going to ask you about your strengths. Please tell me:
- What do you consider to be the main things that you are good at?
- How have you used these strengths at work or in education?’
‘Tell me about a time you’ve disagreed with a colleague – how did you handle it?’
‘Think of a time you’ve disagreed with a colleague. Please tell me:
- What was the disagreement about?
- How did you resolve it?’
Your organisation can avoid and overcome challenges to ensure enjoyable and effective working relationships via:
- Formal activities – from job coaches to state-funded initiatives to help with extra costs such as adaptations in the workplace
- An Autism at Work programme may be of interest if you are thinking about recruiting Autistic people for a new role
- Informal activities – such as making sure communication is clear, that the environment takes account of sensory needs, and the necessary support is at hand
- Clarify expectations of the job
- Provide training and monitoring
- Make sure instructions are concise and specific
- Ensure the work environment is well-structured
- Regularly review performance
- Provide sensitive but direct feedback
- Provide reassurance in stressful situations
- Support your staff member to prepare for changes
- Ask about sensory distractions
- Help other staff to be more aware
- Be patient and understanding
- Adapt your communication styles to match theirs
- Respect sensory sensitivities
- Make sure they have a clear understanding of the expectations
- Offer support and accommodations as needed
If you require further assistance The National Autistic Society (National Autistic Society (autism.org.uk)) helps and supports candidates and you as an employer to provide a program.
To conclude, understanding your employee is the key aspect to having a better working environment and relationship, so it is important to bring awareness and acceptance. Making adjustments that benefit people with ASD will be the corner stone to creating a thriving working environment for your employees. Ensure that resources and knowledge regarding this subject are available to all, to improve communication between colleagues and enrich the working experience. To achieve this goal, it is important to discuss ASD with your employee to get their thoughts on the subject and what best suits them. This may be a difficult conversation to have, but like all good things remember to provide the time and have patience to achieve the desired results.
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