According to research by The National Autistic Society, (NAS), around 1 in 100 people in the UK are currently living with autism. People with autism have difficulty in three areas – social communication, social interaction and social imagination – although autism is a spectrum condition, which means it affects different people in different ways.
Only 15% of adults with autism are currently in employment, although many more want to work. People with autism can be extremely reliable employees who possess good attention to detail, high levels of concentration and strong research skills. With an increased awareness of what autism is, how individuals with autism can best be managed and the reasonable adjustment solutions that may be required, more people with autism could find or stay in work.
People with autism find it difficult to understand and deal with the complexities of non-verbal and verbal cues and they often take the things people say very literally. They may find idioms and expressions confusing, for example, when someone says “I killed two birds with one stone” a person with autism may believe that two birds have actually been killed. They may also have difficulty understanding rhetorical questions (e.g. “why me?”), sarcasm, metaphors, similes and irony.
Some people with autism also experience difficulty with ‘turn taking’ in conversations, so they may talk at length without realising that others are not interested, or appear disinterested in what others are saying. Other individuals with autism are completely non-verbal, and some may communicate using signs and signals.
In the workplace, people with autism work best when their role and what is expected of them is very clear and when they are given direct instructions with no room for ambiguity. It may help to write these instructions down and break up larger tasks into smaller steps.
Those working with individuals with autism will need to understand the difficulties they have with social communication, and not expect them to always engage with workplace ‘banter’. Speaking clearly and being consistent can help the person with autism navigate what is being said or asked of them. Many people with high functioning autism are extremely good at following instructions, when these instructions are clear.
People with autism can experience difficulty in understanding their own feelings and emotions, and also recognising and understanding such feelings in others. This means they may appear insensitive (e.g. not asking if someone is okay if they are crying), may have trouble expressing their own emotions and can come across as socially inappropriate in their attempts to interact with others (e.g. standing too close or far away from someone during conversation, or bringing up inappropriate subjects of conversation).
Many people with autism prefer to spend time on their own and it may be that they need a space in the workplace where they can go to be alone. Other people in the workplace should also be trained in understanding how autism affects social interaction and communication, so that they can understand that the person with autism is not being intentionally rude or inappropriate. Having an employee with autism in the workplace can encourage acceptance of difference and make for a more diverse and interesting organisation.
Difficulties with social imagination mean that people with autism can find it hard to plan ahead and predict what is going to happen in the future. They also find it difficult to cope with change and many find comfort in sticking to the same routine.
Some people with autism can become very interested in one particular subject and learn everything they can about this topic/area. This can be useful in a workplace situation when this knowledge is required for their role.
Although employers cannot manage or predict unexpected change, they can ensure that they clearly explain any changes to the individual with autism. They can also try to ensure that an employee with autism is able to stick to a routine as much as possible, for example, by providing a work timetable and/or ensuring that the person with autism has their breaks at the same time each day. People with autism may also be good at reminding others of routine and encouraging others to be consistent in their work.
Individuals with autism may be overly sensitive to sensory information such as sight, sound, touch, smell or taste. They may, for example, find that too much noise or bright lights cause them distress or even pain. In a workplace situation, individuals with autism may require their own dedicated work area where they can avoid being exposed to such stressors.
Other conditions associated with autism
People with autistic spectrum conditions including Asperger’s Syndrome can often have associated hidden impairment conditions such as:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD);
- dyslexia – problems with reading, writing and spelling;
- dyspraxia – a condition which affects physical coordination;
- dyscalculia – difficulty with arithmetic;
- speech and language difficulties.
Supporting someone with autism in the workplace
All individuals with autism vary, and the support required will depend on the person, the organisation and their job role. As well as being aware of the above difficulties that people with autism can face and how best to help them, the following could also help individuals with autism at work:
- appointing a mentor to support the employee with autism;
- getting help from an organisation that provides training and coaching on autism such as The National Autistic Society, Autism Alliance UK, Autism Plus etc;
- holding regular one-to-one meetings with the employee with autism, offering direct but sensitive feedback.
Employees with autistic spectrum conditions are likely be protected under the Equality Act 2010. This means that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to enable a person with autism to undertake their job role. More information on autism and work for employees and employers can be found on the Fit for Work Advice Hub and you can also call the Fit for Work advice line (0800 032 6235 or 0800 019 2211 for those in Scotland) for advice and support on work-related health topics including autism and the workplace.
People with autism who have been off work for four weeks or more due to sickness can ask their GP or employer for a referral to Fit for Work to help them return to work.