Autism in The Workplace
There are many ways of supporting a person with autism in the workplace to ensure that they reach their full potential and perform highly in their job.
Many of these techniques may also be beneficial for other staff.
Managers and colleagues who work with a person with autism have often reported that supporting them has helped them to communicate better with other staff, or to think more clearly about how to organise and prioritise their own work. Much support to a person with autism can easily be given informally. Other support can range from a job coach to formal state funded schemes to help with extra costs such as transport or adaptations in the workplace.
Both formal and informal support may be considered ‘reasonable adjustments’ under the Disability Discrimination Act (1995).
- Constructive feedback Most people with autism welcome clarity and constructive comments. However, some people have a history of bullying or have low self-esteem, so it is vital to give feedback in a way that is tactful. It should be clear that any adaptations being made for them in the workplace are there to ensure they are doing the job well, not because they are not good enough. As people with autism usually find it difficult to pick up social cues, many may assume their performance is acceptable unless explicitly told otherwise, while others will need reassurance that they are doing well. Because of this, line managers and possibly other colleagues need to be prepared to give feedback which is honest, constructive and consistent. For example, if a person completes a task incorrectly, you should explain tactfully but clearly why it is wrong, and what they should do instead. Telling the person how to do something differently (rather than just pointing out what they are doing wrong) is particularly important as people with autism are often good at following specific, clear instructions but may struggle with grasping an implied suggestion. In addition, if somebody has done something well, it is helpful to give positive feedback.
- Regular feedback As with other employees, regular one-to-one meetings between an employee with autism and their line manager or a supervisor to discuss and review performance are important and are usually the best way to give overall comments and suggestions. Brief, frequent one-to-one sessions may be better than long sessions at less frequent intervals.
- Use Mentors As well as having structured training and feedback, it may be helpful for the person with autism to have a mentor or ‘buddy’ in the workplace, who they can go to if they are feeling stressed, anxious or confused. This person does not need to be a line manager, but simply a colleague who is empathetic and can provide moral support or a point of contact between the person with autism and other colleagues. Having somebody that the person with autism can turn to at times of stress may well help to head off problems and prevent them from escalating.
- Clear instruction Many people with autism take things literally and find generalisations difficult to deal with, therefore, clear guidance of what is expected of the employee is essential. When giving instructions or explanations, be concise and specific – if an employee or colleague is being asked to complete a task or gather some information, say exactly what you require rather than assume they will infer what you want them to do. For example, instead of saying “Make sure everybody has a copy of this,” say: “Photocopy this three times and give a copy each to Mary, Sam and Ahmed.”
- Step system It may be helpful to break a large task up into steps. Many people with autism like to have a plan of the order in which tasks should be done and/or a timetable indicating what to do when. It is often best to back up verbal instructions with written ones which the person can refer to if and when they need. It may also be beneficial to ask the employee to repeat back instructions they have just heard. You may have to reinforce instructions over a period of time until you are satisfied the employee has fully assimilated them.
- Patience reaps reward People with autism may find it harder to master a task immediately, and may need repetition. But once the task is learnt, they are likely to perform it consistently well. Remember that a person with autism may find some things that seem perfectly straightforward to others very hard to learn, but conversely master a complex task with unusual ease.
- Reduce anxiety Because people with autism are often highly meticulous, they may become very anxious if they are unable to perform perfectly. For example, a person with autism may become much more stressed than a colleague if something like an IT problem prevents them working the way they usually do. It may be helpful to explain ways to overcome potential difficulties. Give concrete solutions as and when necessary, such as: “When you have filled in the form, photocopy it and file the copy. If the photocopier is broken, use the one on the 1st or 2nd floor instead.” People may also become stressed if transport problems such as bus or train delays cause them to arrive at work after the time they are meant to start, and may need reassurance that this is not a problem. If a person with autism is becoming anxious, try to find out what is causing the problem. One-to-one sessions are probably the best place for this. You may need to think laterally. For example, the stress may not be caused by a difficulty in the job, but by a colleague not being explicit in instructions, by things not working (such as IT breakdowns), or by difficulties in getting to work. Trying to think around the immediate issue may help, as will supportively asking the employee specific, though not invasive, questions to try to get to the root of the problem.
- Organisation Some people with autism are highly organised and organisation in the workplace may well be a strength. However, others may have difficulties in this area, so guidelines can be helpful. For example, if someone is doing an office-based job, a plan saying who sits where may be useful, and a written list of the stationery a person should have in their drawer can help to reduce the amount of ‘clutter’ they collect. Another simple strategy might be to label trays for ‘work to be done’, ‘work completed’ and a ‘check’ tray for work that needs checking or where there is an outstanding query. Helping somebody organise his or her workspace can help to reduce stress, lead to more efficient working and present an altogether more professional image. Monitoring progress with this may be helpful, and many other colleagues are also likely to benefit from these strategies.
- Time management Some people with autism (and quite a lot of people without) find it difficult to plan their own time or like to have a clear idea of exactly what they should be doing when, and the deadline for it. To help with this it might be helpful to have a regular timetable for tasks, or to spend a short time at the beginning of each day to help a person plan their work.
- Resources for self help Some people with autism are prone to over-checking and asking numerous questions about tasks which have already been explained. This is often a person’s tactic for ensuring they are doing their job properly, so should not be taken as a sign that somebody has not understood a task. However, it can be both distracting and time consuming if not dealt with well and a ‘working file’ can help enormously. A typical working file could contain any appropriate information, such as lists of extension numbers or instructions on how to file documents. This gives the person with autism a resource to refer to for reassurance that they are doing a job correctly without disturbing colleagues. If a work-related question is asked, colleagues can remind the person of the file. As well as cutting down on interruptions, this can help the individual gain confidence. The information in the file can obviously be adapted and updated as the person learns their job and takes on new tasks. Compiling information about the job and the workplace in this way may also result in an equally useful resource for other staff and new team members.
- Unwritten 'rules' All jobs have mutually understood expectations attached to them, which could be social or work-related. For instance, in an office environment the members of a team may make tea or coffee for everybody if they are having one themselves. These expectations may not be grasped by a person with autism if it has not been explained to them – they may consider their job tasks to be exactly what is written in their job description or daily plan. Explaining these unwritten ‘rules’ can help to avoid any misunderstanding and help the person with autism fit in with their colleagues.
- Spare time management Often employees with autism find breaks and lunchtimes more difficult to manage than the actual work tasks they are employed to do. This is because these times are usually unstructured social times, when colleagues chat, laugh and relax over coffee or lunch. For someone with autism, this type of social interaction is exactly the area where they may lack skills or be unsure of what is expected of them. If a person with autism prefers to do their own thing during these times but is not sure whether this is OK, you could suggest activities such as crosswords, reading a magazine, listening to a personal stereo or going for a short walk. Alternatively, if the person has a ‘buddy’ or mentor, they could tactfully ensure the person is included in workplace conversation, which may help the person gain the confidence to take part.
- Interpersonal support Sometimes people with autism may say or ask things which other colleagues may judge to be inappropriate, too personal or even bizarre. It is important to be aware that this is not done on purpose, but is merely part of the condition of autism. It may be a help to provide some suggestions for topics of conversation, so that the person with autism gains a better understanding of what people expect from socialising with colleagues. It is also helpful to remember that people with autism may not always be able to tell when you are joking or being sarcastic. This does not mean that they do not have a sense of humour, but colleagues may need to bear in mind that some elements in day-to-day conversation may be ‘lost’ on someone with autism, and be ready to explain if necessary.
- Guidance Many people with autism have strong personal interests or rituals which are part of their everyday life. This is fine unless it affects their work or irritates their colleagues. Strategies can usually be introduced to overcome any problems. For example, a person with a tendency to pace up and down the office could be helped to deal with this by restricting it to walking to the toilets and back. Another person who talks obsessively about their hobby could be set clear boundaries about when they can do this (five minutes at the beginning of the day and five minutes at the end). Through reminding the person of the boundaries when necessary, their manager and colleagues should be able to help the individual establish a pattern which is satisfactory to everybody.
The need to give clear instructions and support with social conversations does not mean that the person with autism has limited understanding or needs care. Employees with autism are adults and it is important not to talk down to them or to treat them like children.
Providing clear and structured training when a person starts a job or takes on new responsibilities is invaluable to a person with autism. This can be provided informally on the job by a manager, colleagues or a mentor. If necessary, there are various organisations and schemes which can offer a job coach and a grant for this may be available. You will be able to get information on this from the Disability Employment Adviser at your local Jobcentre.
- Explaining autism and how it impacts on people to other staff is often invaluable. Sometimes the employee with autism may want to write a document explaining how their condition affects them and what kind of things they find hard, which other staff can read. Providing general disability training to other employees may help and is likely to provide benefits to them beyond simply working with one member of staff.
There may be occasions when problems do arise, either for the person with their job tasks or between the person with autism and their colleagues. Many of these are easy to deal with swiftly and tactfully. For example, if a person seems aloof or uninterested in talking to colleagues, or says the wrong thing, remember (and remind staff/colleagues if necessary), that this is unlikely to be intentional, but is simply a manifestation of the difficulties that person has with communication. Similarly, a person may try too hard to fit in and irritate colleagues by seeming to ‘muscle in’ on a conversation. Such situations can usually be defused by patience, understanding and a clear explanation of boundaries if this is necessary. Remember that boundaries may not be necessary just for the person with autism – other staff may also need reminding that their attitude may have a strong impact on the job performance of their colleague with autism.
- Remember that each person with autism is an individual, so not all of these techniques will be necessary or appropriate for every employee with autism. These guidelines provide hints and ideas, but you will need to work with the employee (and if appropriate, their supporter) to find out what particular difficulties they may encounter and what adjustments and techniques will help them in the workplace.
Regardless of the potential benefits of employing a person with autism, many employers are concerned that difficulties may arise, or that they lack the experience and ability to support a person with autism in the workplace. If you employ a person with autism, there are various forms of support available to you as an employer. These range from practical support and advice to financial schemes which may be able to relieve any extra costs the employer or employee could face, such as the costs of employing a job coach for the first few weeks of employment.
Most Jobcentres or Jobcentre Plus offices have a Disability Employment Adviser (DEA) who specialises in supporting people with disabilities to get work, and advises both disabled job seekers and employers. They will be able to provide information on financial assistance and incentives to employers and any support which is available in the local area.
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