Many employers are worried that they don’t know enough about autism or that they may struggle to make adjustments to support an employee. It’s important to bear in mind that autism affects individuals in very different ways and covers a wide range of challenges and needs, some of which may be relatively straightforward and others much more complex. As it’s Autism Awareness Week it’s a good opportunity to highlight some of the simple things you can do as an employer to assist employees with autism, or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), some of which actually may benefit other employees too.
Ask the Employee!
Make a start by asking the individual what things they feel they need, what they find helpful, what they find difficult or what makes their work harder. People with autism are the expert in their day to day working life and can usually provide clarity about the challenges they are facing, what they need or what has helped them previously. This will help to guide you in sourcing further guidance or support if necessary. However, there may be situations or tasks that the individual may not fully appreciate the impact of, and this is where involving someone who is knowledgeable about their condition and who they trust can be helpful.
During recruitment, make sure to ask all candidates if they have any needs to enable them to participate in the recruitment process, that way you can plan appropriately. Offering a candidate with autism the opportunity to visit and look around the workplace prior to the interview and providing as much information as possible beforehand, is likely to be appreciated. In some cases, a work trial may be the best way of enabling a candidate to demonstrate what they can do without the pressure of an unnatural interview or assessment situation.
Consider the Working Environment
Some people with autism (but not all) may find background noise distressing. Simple ways to reduce this can be the use of noise cancelling headphones or locating them in a quiet area.
Visual overload can also be challenging, so turning the lighting down in an area can be helpful or locating the individual where surroundings, such as walls, are fairly neutral coloured and don’t
have busy patterns or too many posters etc.
If you are lucky enough to be planning a workplace refit or redecoration it may be worth considering using neutral colours and simple décor which not only looks smart but creates a calmer environment for everyone.
Many people on the autistic spectrum have a particular need for routine, structure and certainties. It’s worth looking at the design of their jobs and the systems and processes they use to make them as predictable as they can be. It’s worth removing as much ambiguity as possible, including making efforts to ensure that communications are very clear. Some individuals have a need to absorb information in their own time, so ensuring that the format and timing of communication works for them can be a great help.
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t just apply to autism, many people have strong preferences in these areas and will benefit from some thought being given to their needs.
We can all find change of any sort stressful and therefore employers who explain change clearly and well ahead of time, wherever possible, make the process easier for all employees. Making a greater effort to explain, plan ahead carefully, and cover lots of detail about even the smallest changes will be enormously helpful for anyone who finds these things particularly challenging.
Working in Teams
Due to some of the challenges faced with social interactions, employees on the autistic spectrum can struggle in perceiving the actions or expressions of speech of others. Their colleagues can also have difficulty in what they may see as non-typical responses in communication and eye contact.
Providing some education to managers and colleagues about autism is important in these circumstances.
In large organisations you could do this as part of Diversity awareness training. It’s also possible that the individual themselves could convey the key information about their specific needs, either to the team or via a team manager. This can be particularly important for people with high functioning autism, as their characteristics don’t appear to be that different from everyone else and so are likely to be more easily misunderstood.
What if the Individual Doesn’t Have a Diagnosis?
Occasionally it may only become apparent that someone may be on the autistic spectrum when stresses or anxieties have resulted in a particular issue arising at work, without the employee having any insight that autism could be the cause. However, this is fairly rare. What is more common is that an individual has seen a GP who believes that they may be on the spectrum but diagnosis from a specialist has not been available – waiting lists for assessments can run into years. Without an official diagnosis, individuals may feel they cannot declare themselves as being on the autistic spectrum or are concerned that if they do declare this without a formal diagnosis, they may not be supported. The National Autistic Society can assist with assessments. They also provide training for employers and other information on their website.
It’s About the Individual
It’s clear that the simple suggestions above can apply equally well to other employees without autism. We often forget that employees are individuals, with individual needs for how they work, how they communicate and what helps them to work well. Good employment practices and good line managers who understand how to manage people effectively will ensure that even without specific knowledge of autism (or other characteristics) every individual can be supported – it just takes good communication and some thought, time and effort!
If you want to know more about the particular characteristics of autism, DWP have a great page of easy to understand information with a few videos in their Autism and Neurodiversity Toolkit.
There is also an interesting Neurodiversity At Work Paper available from ACAS.
Access To Work can assist with funding to support workplace adaptations and changes.
Autism Speaks have useful toolkits and information for employers.