Working with someone on the autism spectrum (including those with Asperger syndrome), can be an enriching experience for managers and colleagues alike, but it may also present some challenges. Here we explain how to avoid or overcome any difficulties, in order to ensure enjoyable and effective working relationships.
Many autistic people have a variety of sometimes exceptional skills that enable them to thrive in roles ranging from sales assistant to computer programmer and journalist to statistician, to name a few. However, they are often disadvantaged when it comes to getting and keeping a job because of difficulties with social communication and interaction, other people’s lack of understanding, and sensory issues.
Autistic employees may need some support within the workplace. By taking some simple steps, your organisation will be meeting the Equality Act (2010) and Northern Ireland Disability Discrimination Act requirement for employers to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities.
Formal activities – from job coaches to state-funded initiatives to help with extra costs such as adaptations in the workplace. Our Employment Training Service can provide more information about all the options available.
Informal activities – eg making sure communication is clear, that the environment takes account of sensory needs, and the necessary support is at hand.
Understanding your autistic employee
“I have difficulty picking up social cues, and difficulty in knowing what to do when I get things wrong.”- Autistic person
If the person seems aloof or uninterested in talking to colleagues, or often says the ‘wrong’ thing, remember (and, where appropriate, remind colleagues) that this is probably unintentional and is likely to be due to the person’s communication difficulties.
If the person tries too hard to fit in and irritates colleagues by seeming to ‘muscle in’ on a conversation, be patient, and explain the boundaries if necessary. Other staff may also need reminding that their attitudes may have a strong impact on the job performance of their autistic colleague.
If the person becomes anxious for any reason, try to find out what is causing the problem. One-to-one sessions are probably the best situation for doing 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 their instructions, by things not working efficiently (such as a computer crashing), or by difficulties in getting to their work. Trying to think around the immediate issue may help, as well as supportively asking the employee specific (though not invasive) questions to try to get to the root of the problem.
There may be occasions where problems do arise for the person – particularly in social interactions, where communication can break down. If you become aware of any of these problems, try to deal with them swiftly and tactfully, and make colleagues aware of the potential for misunderstanding.
Your autistic staff member may also have some difficulty in adapting their existing skills and knowledge to new tasks or environments. These difficulties can make the work environment hard for the person to deal with. They can also cause misunderstandings among other staff – particularly as autism is an invisible condition. They may misconstrue the person’s behaviour as rude, insensitive or unfriendly. However, the good news is that there are plenty of simple ways to make sure that the person has the support they need and to ensure good positive working relationships.
I have an excellent memory for facts and figures for example, car number plates and timetables. I never have to write down telephone numbers. I have an excellent memory for jokes anecdotes and even whole movie scripts.
Clarify expectations of the job. You may need to be more explicit about your expectations for an autistic member of staff. As well as the job description, you need to explain the etiquette and unwritten rules of the workplace. Make it clear that any adaptations for them in the workplace are there to help them keep doing their job well, not because they are not good enough.
Provide training and monitoring. Clear and structured training is invaluable. This can be provided informally on the job, by a manager, colleagues or a mentor, or may take the form of more formal training. Various organisations and schemes offer job coaches, and funding for this form of training may be available from the Department of Work and Pensions. Our Employment Training Service can provide more information.
Make sure instructions are concise and specific. Try to give the your employee clear instructions right from the start about exactly how to carry out each task, from start to finish, as this will lay the foundations for good working practices. Don’t assume the person will infer your meaning from informal instructions – for example, rather than saying ‘Give everybody a copy of this’, say ‘Make three photocopies of this, and give one each to Sam, Mary and Ahmed’. You may also choose to provide written instructions. It can be helpful to ask the person to repeat back instructions so you are sure they have understood.
Ensure the work environment is well-structured. Some autistic people need a fairly structured work environment. You can help by working with them to prioritise activities, organising tasks into a timetable for daily, weekly and monthly activities, and breaking larger tasks into small steps. Some people will appreciate precise information about start and finish times, and help getting into a routine with breaks and lunches.
Regularly review performance. As with any employee, line managers should have regular one-to-one meetings with the person to discuss and review performance and give overall comments and suggestions. For an autistic staff member, brief, frequent reviews may be better than longer sessions at less frequent intervals.
Provide sensitive but direct feedback. Autistic people often find it difficult to pick up on social cues, so make sure your feedback is honest, constructive and consistent. If they complete a task incorrectly, don’t allude to, or imply, any problems – instead, explain tactfully but clearly why it is wrong, check that they have understood, and set out exactly what they should do instead. Be aware that they may have low self-esteem or experience of being bullied, so ensure that any criticism is sensitive, and give positive feedback wherever appropriate.
Provide reassurance in stressful situations. Autistic people can be quite meticulous, and can become anxious if their performance is not perfect. This means they may become very stressed in a situation such as an IT failure. You can help by giving concrete solutions to these situations – for example, by explaining “If the photocopier breaks, use the one on the third floor.” Similarly, reassure them that if they occasionally arrive late due to transport problems or other unpreventable factors, this is not a problem. Your employee may benefit from having a mentor or buddy in the workplace – an empathetic colleague who they can go to if they are feeling stressed, anxious or confused.
Support your staff member to prepare for changes. Give information about changes to the workplace or tasks well in advance.
Ask about sensory distractions. Autistic employees sometimes benefit from things like screens around their desk, noise-cancelling headphones, or their desk being in the corner.
Help other staff to be more aware. If your autistic employee consents to their condition being disclosed, then providing colleagues with information and guidance on autism can benefit everyone. Sometimes the employee may find it helpful to write a document for other staff explaining what their colleagues can do to support them. You could consider staff training, or our online modules.
Read more tips given by Janine Booth in her interview about the importance of autism equality in the workplace.
David and Jacqui’s story
“David already worked in my team as a Customer Sales Assistant when I became his line manager in 2002. I had no previous experience of working with people with autism, so I did some reading around the subject and David’s NAS support worker popped in and introduced herself early on, which was really helpful.
“David is very good with customers and has excellent interpersonal skills. In the time I’ve worked with him we haven’t really had any particular challenges to overcome, mainly because Prospects has shown us how to prevent any difficulties from arising in the first place. But it’s good to know that they are always there to provide back up if we need it. I feel I’m very fortunate to have someone like David in my team.
“Managing him has taught me that everyone is different, with their own individual strengths. Everyone in the team values David as a member of our working family.” – Jacqui Copas, Customer Reception Supervisor at First Great Western Railways