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3 Ways to Support Autistic Employees in the Workplace

By Guest Author April 27, 2021

By: Philip Bartey, CEO of Autism Plus

For the second year in a row, we’re still celebrating Autism Awareness Month during a global pandemic. Given the challenges of COVID-19 restrictions, it is even more important for us this year to ensure that we are spreading more awareness, understanding, and acceptance of autism and neurodiversity.

By sharing the stories and achievements of people with autism, we aim to help people understand the impact of autism and offer meaningful ways to be better, more supportive co-workers.

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Employee at Autism Plus’ social enterprise, Park House Barns Chocolate Factory

Since the lockdown restrictions are slowly lifting here in the U.K. and in other parts of the world after a year of working from home for many employees, we asked some of the individuals that we support what they were worried about when it comes to going back to the workplace. Most of the responses centered around concerns that autistic employees have when it comes to their workplace environment.

So in honour of Autism Awareness Month, we want to highlight some best practices for employers on how to best support autistic employees — not only in April or after a pandemic lockdown, but all year long.

1) Inclusive Hiring Practices

Supporting individuals with autism in the workplace starts with your recruitment and hiring process: Look for competency instead of “culture fit”. Very often, employers reject autistic candidates because of presumed interpersonal problems — the candidate might have been staring at the floor instead of giving eye contact or didn’t seem to have a sense of humour, and the interviewer might feel that they wouldn’t be good at dealing with customers.

Employers should be thinking about the big picture when they’re putting a team together. All teams have people with different skill sets that are better suited to different roles, and neurodiverse candidates are no different. It’s important to identify their skillset, focus in on their abilities, and look past their ability to communicate their skills but enable them to showcase their skills through practice and delivery. If you can offer an individual the opportunity to show you their skills rather than talk about them, then you may just find the candidate that you are looking for.

2) Mitigate Common Workplace Barriers

Some common challenges for people with autism include communication, social cues, and flexibility to changing environments. People with autism can struggle with unwritten “social rules” that are ambiguous or not followed by all. Breaks are a good example of this since it is not always clearly defined when employees should take breaks and for how long. It can also be difficult for autistic individuals to know what to do during unstructured time.

Autistic employees might also need longer to learn a new task, or they may require support to process and break down information. In our survey regarding concerns when returning back to the workplace post-COVID-19, almost all the responses were related to changes or new processes — new office layouts, new rules regarding the use of communal facilities, new organisational policies, and also where to find this information. Many of these concerns regarding (unwritten) rules and changes are top of mind for a lot of autistic employees, pandemic or not.

Because things like unwritten social rules and changing environments are all fairly common workplace characteristics, they might not be at the forefront for non-autistic employees. To be mindful of your autistic co-worker and how these challenges might impact them, speak to the individual and discuss their concerns to find out what they feel they may struggle with. Ensure that the communication is clear and correct, and follow up with an email to ensure that the individual understands what is expected. Written communication also allows the individual time to think and to process the information which can then be revisited during a follow-up meeting.

3) Be Proactive in Your Support

Not everyone with autism or a disability will declare it to their employer because they’re fearful of lack of understanding, or maybe they fear it might inhibit their promotion chances. Through our services, we help employers to understand some of the behaviour that autistic people exhibit in the workplace, and how they can approach this sensitively to offer more support.

It’s important to keep checking back and to not expect the individual to come to you if there is a problem — they may be too anxious to do this or not know how or when to approach you. You can set specific times for catchup meetings or mini reviews to give a specific time where concerns or questions can be raised.

Since feeling isolated in the team is another common barrier for autistic people in the workplace, we also recommend enlisting the support of peers. Given the employee’s permission, ensure that colleagues are aware of their needs, are supportive, and can offer help when needed. Having a dedicated peer mentor is usually effective and offers an additional contact other than a manager.

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During Autism Awareness month Autism Plus has been celebrating the achievements of individuals across their care services and social enterprises

In addition to increasing understanding around the barriers that autistic people often face, we also want to use Autism Awareness Month to encourage positivity about autism, because all of these issues can be overcome with the support that we and others in the sector provide.

Our celebrations this month have themes centered around being active, being creative, learning something new, and doing something fun. We’ve seen some fantastic engagement already: We’re well on our way to achieve our Million Steps Challenge with over 320,000 steps so far. The goal is to get outside and move around — whether you’re walking, running, or jogging, record those steps and share it on social media.

Autism Awareness Month is a chance for us to raise important awareness and understanding of autism, and celebrate what people are achieving everyday, across all of our services and beyond.

Learn more about how to cultivate inclusion at work, and take the Inclusive Leadership Trailhead module.

About the Author

Philip Bartey, CEO of Autism Plus

Philip is native of Halifax, West Yorkshire. He spent most of his career in London and the South East. With a background in marketing he worked in the food and drink industry for Cadbury Schweppes, Harveys of Bristol the sherry and port shippers and other Allied Lyons group companies. In the early 1990’s he was Chief Executive for Leonard Cheshire Services in Northumbria. It is here that his passion for supporting disabled people was cultivated. He joined Autism Plus in 2005 and has led the charity through a significant period of growth and diversification. Philip is passionate about striving to improve the lives of people with autism and related neuro-diverse conditions.