How to Support an Employee with Autism Spectrum Disorder
“Every child with autism becomes an adult with autism”
The conversation about autism is mostly centred on autistic children, how they behave, and how we can better support their ability to cope with their symptoms. It is then less likely that one steers the conversation toward autistic adults, how they can cope with their symptoms, as well as the importance of receiving a diagnosis, even later in life.
Another important aspect of life for an autistic adult’s life is their career. Bringing awareness to this aspect shines a light on the importance of providing every single individual, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, the opportunity to financially sustain themselves, and pursue a professional career. It is up to each employer or manager to ensure that the work environment they curate is one that welcomes individuals of all backgrounds, ages, and abilities. This is why it’s important to understand the different characteristics of autistic employees as well as the various methods that can be used in order to support their journey. Not only is it a duty to provide them with equal opportunity, but it is also a benefit to the employer. With their common attention to detail, concentration skills, and creative thinking, autistic individuals can bring tremendous value to the right workplace. Employing them also shows that your work environment is a diverse one that demonstrates a commitment toward equality. For employers to be able to provide an environment that welcomes autistic employees, it’s important to first raise awareness of what exactly autism spectrum disorder is.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate and interact socially and/or affects the person’s behaviour. Restricting and repetitive behaviours (repeating specific behaviours, lasting and intense interests in specific topics, strict routine) and/or social and communication issues (inconsistent eye contact, difficulty making conversation, presenting proper facial expressions) are possible indicators of ASD.
How is Autism a “Spectrum”?
ASD is described as a "spectrum" because it encompasses a wide variety of symptoms and severity levels among persons who have been diagnosed. Each person diagnosed with ASD will have their unique own levels of ability that affect their day to day living and will also indicate the level of support they need in order to better cope with their experiences. While it is true that the main symptoms of ASD involve social/communication difficulties and/or restrictive and repetitive behaviour, each person on the spectrum will present these symptoms in their own different ways. Some may assume that an individual who is nonverbal is automatically considered on the “low-functioning” part of the spectrum, however, this same person may be highly functional in other areas in life and have their own unique qualities such as having an average or above-average intelligence level or being highly skilled in their professional careers. There is a phrase in the Autism community that is attributed to Dr. Stephen Shore and it goes “If you have met one person with Autism, you have met one person with Autism”. This indicates the vast variety that exists in the spectrum and expresses the individuality of the disorder.
Employment for People with Autism
There are several types of employment that can be offered for autistic employees, including:
Competitive employment: the employee is working independently and can be provided a number of accommodations depending on his or her needs.
Supported employment: the employee is working alongside a support system and is handed a position and a number of responsibilities that fit their individual abilities.
Secured/sheltered employment: the employee is placed in a facility-based setting, while being provided sufficient training to gain the needed work skills to perform the job.
How can the work environment be modified to support employees on the spectrum?
- Interviewing their abilities
To start off, when interviewing potential candidates, employers should be aware of the key functions, skills, experiences, and abilities that are needed to perform the job. For example, if the job requires strong analytical abilities and Microsoft office skills, then a candidate shouldn’t be rejected due to having trouble maintaining eye contact.
- The employee knows best
Autistic employees could already be aware of their skillset and drawbacks and should therefore be the first line of reference when planning any adjustments or accommodations that would help them perform their tasks.
- Hyperfocusing and specific schedules
A number of people on the spectrum are able to hyperfocus, meaning that they can intensely reserve all their attention on one specific topic or task that interests them and only work on them until it is finished. If this is the case with tasks related to their job, then it would be applicable. If their focus compromises their ability to do their work, then work out a solution together to help them break their intense concentration. Others shift towards having a strict schedule and changes in this particular schedule would be especially overwhelming for them. Accommodations based on these two different experiences can be implemented without affecting the employee’s productivity. For example, if an employee always has lunch at precisely 12:15 PM, then an accommodation here may be reasonable.
- Reasonable workplace accommodations
An employee on the spectrum, to be able to fully fulfil his or her job requirements, may need certain adjustments to be made in the workplace. Some of these adjustments could be reasonable to implement in the work environment and wouldn’t serve as a barrier.
Some of these accommodations or adjustments include:
- Allowing employees to wear (noise-reduction) headphones while working to minimize distractions
- Adjusting the office lighting
- Respecting personal space
- Using verbal introductions or praise instead of using touch (or handshakes)
- Focusing more on one-to-one meetings in order to reduce noise clutter
- Prepare employees for any changes in their tasks or in the workplace in advance
- Clear instructions
When supervising or managing autistic employees, it’s always helpful to be clear when giving instructions and guidelines. They would be more likely to take what is said in a literal sense, and therefore it would be easier for them to understand directions and expectations that are specific and explained in full detail. It would also be helpful to explain the workplace’s “unwritten rules”.
Instructions that are written in detail explaining, step-by-step, their tasks could be helpful for them to have as a reference when going through their responsibilities. Another supportive method would be to guide them in prioritizing and organizing their tasks into a timetable, while breaking up the large tasks into smaller ones.
- Raise awareness among other employees
In order to ensure a smooth transition and a healthy work environment for everyone involved, employers need to train other employees on what ASD is and how employees on the spectrum can be most supported in the workplace. Employees would benefit from learning how to interact and support their co-workers on the spectrum in order to avoid miscommunications.
- Constructive feedback
Similar to any other employee, it is important for those who are on the spectrum to receive consistent direct (and kind) feedback on their performance. Frequent and short feedback session, as opposed to longer sessions over less frequent intervals, will help them focus on what is being mentioned in these sessions. As mentioned, it is helpful that the feedback is detailed and clear, while ensuring that that you explain their setbacks, that they fully understand the feedback, and that you add suggestions on how to further improve their performance using their knowledge and skillset.
Hiring, training, and managing employees on the spectrum will not only support the ASD community but will also help workplaces gain new perspectives, ideas, and problem-solving methods, which will strengthen their performance and productivity.
There are numerous other ways to better support your autistic employees and to provide them with a supportive work environment, you can find those here.