How to include autistic people in the workplace
Whichever way you look at it, with 32% of autistic adults in some kind of paid work, the employment situation for autistic people is not a good one. Many autistic people have skills and abilities that enable them to excel in a wide range of roles across different industries. But there is still a significant gap between the number who want to work and those in any form of paid employment.
As one of a small but significant number of autistic workers in the charity sector, job coaching on the Autism at Work programme at the National Autistic Society, I am aware of the challenges of creating an inclusive environment as well as its tantalising opportunities too, whatever times we live in.
There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK. Every autistic person is different and will have their own strengths and challenges. Many autistic people need extra time to process information, like questions or instructions, and feel intense anxiety in social situations or when faced with unexpected changes.
But, with a little understanding and small adjustments to the recruitment process and workplace, autistic adults can be a real asset to all sorts of businesses, from IT to the creative industries.
An inclusive environment
Many autistic people have sensory processing differences and can be over or under sensitive to sight, smell, touch, taste and sound. For example, some autistic people struggle to focus when working under bright spotlights or when faced with loud and unexpected noises – or even find this painful.
There are many simple things employers can do to level the playing field, like introducing quiet zones or letting people wear noise-cancelling headphones. Mental health breaks, changes to the physical environment, or just being understanding of how different people work and recognising their talents appropriately can really help.
Don’t forget that you can access support via the government’s Access to Work scheme and we have lots of tips and information on our website too.
It’s not just about making physical adjustments. It’s about planning, clarity and consistency across the board. This starts from the recruitment process and asking each candidate if they need any extra information or support before the interview.
An understanding environment also involves recognising there will be people in it who play for the team (work closely to team objectives and key performance indicators that they need to) and people who play in the team (people who work closely with colleagues), which is an important distinction to make. So, I’d suggest avoiding the words ‘team player’ in job descriptions when recruiting people.
In the workplace
Autism is a hidden disability. So awareness training for managers and colleagues can make a big difference, developing their understanding of autism and familiarising them with often simple adjustments that can be put in place to support an autistic team member. If your organisation employs, or is aiming to employ, a significant number of autistic people you might consider specific training as part of your induction process. As part of our charity’s induction process, staff complete five mandatory modules of our Ask Autism online learning suite. This helps them to understand their autistic colleagues better and avoid common misunderstandings, like people on the spectrum sometimes taking things literally.
Meetings and social events
It’s always good to circulate agendas ahead of meetings, so all colleagues know what to expect, and to consider whether colleagues may prefer information or tasks to be communicated in a written form, rather than just spoken.
A typical team social normally involves everyone going to the pub after work for drinks, which many autistic people do too. However not all autistic people (and non-autistic people for that matter) enjoy the pub which can be noisy, crowded and unpredictable. So it could be good to consider other social events too, particularly virtual drinks or quiz sessions, that allow autistic people to do something in a relaxed manner.
There may also be social groups that a number of autistic employees already attend, so it may be worth pointing them in this direction.
There aren’t enough role models for autistic people to learn from and be inspired by. It may seem obvious but if an organisation has never had an autistic staff member, it may be harder for a prospective or current autistic colleague to see how they can remain or advance in an organisation. So we should welcome it when people disclose their autism, although please remember that it takes no small degree of bravery to do this and become a standard bearer.
And in a time of coronavirus…
Be aware that there will be people who react differently to the challenges posed by both coronavirus itself and the restrictions on daily life imposed as a result. Some people may like working from home and will be worried about what happens when it ends. Other people will hate working at home and grow anxious about their life being up-ended as a result of events being cancelled and restrictions being imposed.
So, watch out for extra anxiety through this period, as your challenge will be to help your employees get through this period into the aftermath and then prepare for any other similar periods that might occur. We have lots of information and resources about autism and coronavirus on our website, including tips to help autistic people and their families to cope. =
I hope these tips will help you create an inclusive environment, welcoming for all sorts of different minds. It’s less of an instant event and more a combination of different processes and adjustments on a journey towards a final goal. Greater inclusion means more people getting the support and understanding they need to help them excel and contribute different perspectives. So do get in touch with us if you would be interested in finding out more or working with us.
Employers can also sign up to our quarterly Autistic Talent newsletter to receive free tips and resources about autism in the workplace and we will also be running virtual workshops in the not too distant future.
And one more thing: underpinning all these adjustments is stakeholder engagement, which is a foundation for diversity and inclusion – whether for autistic people, disabled people or anyone else. For example, our charity has an Autistic Colleagues Network that provides role models and makes recommendations on ways that our workplaces can become inclusive. You and your organisation, be it a charity or any other kind of organisation, will be stronger and smarter for being inclusive in whatever times you live in.