Supporting employees with autism in the workplace
What is autism?
The National Autistic Society defines autism as ‘a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. More than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.’
Autism affects the way a person perceives the world and how they interact with others. It's associated with challenges including: social communication difficulties and sensory sensitivities. As well as strengths including: honesty, attention to detail, and superb memory.
People with Autism may have difficulty understanding both verbal and non-verbal language, communicating verbally, and expressing emotion. They may also experience sensory sensitivities, and encounter anxiety in response to change in routine. Autistic people can also be literal thinkers, and may find it difficult to follow instructions that aren't specific. They can also become focused excessively on tasks, or worries.
Alongside their challenges, people with Autism have many strengths. For example a thorough, creative and attentive approach to tasks. People with Autism can often solve problems with creative thinking and superb attention to detail. They also have the ability to focus intensely on a given task.
It's important to note that Autism is referred to as a spectrum condition. That's because the associated strengths and challenges vary widely from person to person. There are also other names for autism used by some people.
For example, some people with Autism may identify as having Asperger's, or Asperger syndrome.
How can autism affect people at work?
Working with autism tends to bring up some unique challenges because employers are often unsure how to accommodate neurodiverse employees. The interview stage may be an intimidating process, and once in the workplace, autistic employees may find themselves misunderstood by colleagues, or even discriminated against. Other challenges might include trouble with time management, anxiety, sensory issues and a preference for a consistent schedule. However, it’s important to note that autism is a spectrum, which means strengths and challenges vary widely from person to person. Being autistic will affect each person in a different way.
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7 strengths employees with autism can bring to your workplace
Autistic adults make up a large pool of skilled individuals who can be often overlooked in the hiring process.
By embracing diversity and actively seeking out neurodiverse talent, companies can access a highly skilled pool of talent with a unique set of strengths and abilities.
Here are some of these unique benefits employees with autism can bring to the workplace:
Autistic individuals often prefer to focus their attention on one thing at a time, and in great detail. This can help them provide a high standard of work, and spot mistakes that others may miss.
Being able to think in a highly structured and logical way is another common trait in people with autism. This can be beneficial in roles that involve complex processes, as they are skilled in creating and following systems.
Employees with autism often show strong creativity. This helps them use their unique perspective and offer unconventional solutions to problems. This ability to think outside of the box can be very valuable in roles that require creative problem-solving.
Research shows that autistic individuals have a heightened ability to focus on tasks. This ability to hyperfocus on tasks can result in high-quality results and great productivity, particularly in areas that require lots of attention to detail.
Autistic employees are often extremely dedicated and resilient. They often take great pride in their work and are motivated to produce high-quality results. These traits are valuable in any role, particularly those that require persistence and long-term focus.
Autistic individuals are often known for having a strong sense of fairness and social justice. They can be very aware of when something isn't right or when someone is being treated unfairly. In addition, from going through their own challenges in a neurotypical world, they can draw on their own experiences to help or understand other colleagues.
It’s becoming more and more important to embrace diversity and create an inclusive workplace if we want to ensure a company’s success. By actively recruiting and supporting autistic employees, organisations can foster an inclusive workplace culture that benefits all employees. A diverse workplace can also help retain and attract new talent, with many employees now citing inclusiveness as an important part of somewhere they want to work.
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Strategies for supporting employees with autism
To empower autism strengths, it's important that autistic employees feel confident and comfortable at work.
To offer support, the first step is to find out if the employee feels they need extra support. Then, talk with them to discover what types of adjustments would benefit them. We’ve provided some examples of simple adjustments below. They might help you to kick start the conversation:
1. Explore the idea of a ‘buddy system’
Autistic employees may need extra direction in unforeseen situations, and having a buddy can act as an assigned point of contact that’s less formal than a mentor. This can help autistic employees feel more comfortable with asking lots of questions or checking context and uncertainties.
2. Prevent overstimulation and consider desk location
Many individuals with autism struggle with sensory issues. Certain sights, sounds and smells can prove overwhelming. In the workplace, this might be fluorescent lighting or loud offices. Offer a working area with little noise and distraction. Noise-canceling headphones can also be used to help block out distractions.
3. Create a structured environment
Routine can be hugely important to individuals with autism, so it’s important to discuss the best way to plan workload and instruct on task requirements. Clear instruction, structured working, and forward planning are important.
4. Plan ahead and be prepared
Discuss the best way to plan workload and instruct on task requirements. Clear instruction, structured working, and forward planning are important to reduce anxiety and distress.
5. Be instructive, speak with clarity, and identify the best way to provide feedback
People with autism think literally, so be direct and outline expectations clearly, while still being sensitive. Try to give straightforward instructions, rather than more informal, brief instructions. Providing written instructions may also be beneficial.
6. Be empathetic and inclusive
Empathy is a key part of an inclusive environment, but social cues and invisible boundaries are hard to see. Be mindful of the phrases you use and proactively include those who struggle to interact.
7. Check-in regularly
Offer the opportunity for regular one-to-one conversations. The goal is to offer a frequent channel for support. And if something needs to be rectified, don’t allude to what went wrong, state what’s at fault, explain how it can be fixed, and check everything is understood.
8. Facilitate diverse ways of processing
Not everyone learns and understands in the same way. That’s why it’s important to provide multiple ways of learning. Provide information in different formats and use assistive technology to aid comprehension.
9. Embrace employee strengths
It’s crucial to focus on what unique strengths autistic employees can provide. Identify their strengths then work on how they can use them every day. This will be motivating for employees and better for business.
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Without disclosure, how can we support employees with autism?
As we aim to create a more inclusive workplace, it’s important to highlight that employees have no legal or professional obligation to share that they’re neurodiverse. Employers should not try to prompt employees to disclose this personal information. Instead, focus on creating a work environment where employees feel supported in disclosing, should they want to.
Here are some ways to support autistic employees without requiring their disclosure:
- Promote neurodiversity awareness by holding training sessions or workshops to educate your team on autism and the strengths autistic employees can bring to the team. By creating an inclusive environment, employees with autism may feel more comfortable getting support without sharing their diagnosis.
- Offer sensory-friendly workspaces that accommodate the sensory sensitivities commonly experienced by autistic individuals. This can include providing noise-cancelling headphones, offering adjustable lighting, or creating quiet areas where employees can take breaks.
- Provide flexible work arrangements, such as adjustable work hours or remote work options, to accommodate the unique needs of autistic employees. Flexibility can help reduce stress and improve focus without the need for employees to disclose their diagnosis.
- Use clear and structured communication practices that benefit all employees, including those who are neurodivergent. This can include concise and unambiguous language, and avoiding excessively using figurative language.
- Be mindful of environments that may trigger sensory overload for autistic employees. When organizing events or meetings, consider factors like noise levels, lighting and the availability of quiet spaces.
- Encourage employees to set up resource groups focused on neurodiversity. These groups can provide a safe space for employees with autism to connect with others who share similar experiences.
Supporting Autism at Work: advice from auticon
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Using assistive technology to support employees with autism
Implementing technology in the workplace can completely change employees’ lives by helping them to reach their full potential. This includes ensuring that autistic employees are set-up to use their unique strengths and thrive.
Assistive technology works as the employee works. This means it works in the background to remove any barriers so that employees can work to their full potential. It’s best to choose assistive technology so that each neurodiverse employee can work in a way that suits them.
Assistive technology can help employees by providing visual reminders, auditory processing and predictability. It can also help with communication and establishing a routine. However, assistive technology doesn’t have to be limited to neurodiverse employees. It can benefit other types of thinkers, multi-lingual teams, and anyone who might struggle with everyday literacy tasks have access to the tools that they need to do their job effectively.
Offering assistive technology accommodations also demonstrates a commitment to workplace inclusion, which is something that is increasingly valued by all employees.
Supports people who think, learn and work differently. Helps neurodiverse workforces to thrive.
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