Accommodating Autism in the Workplace
What is autism spectrum disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that impacts how people interact and communicate with the world and those around them.
The definition of autism has changed continuously over the past few decades and will likely do so again over the coming years. As the understanding of it has grown, so too has its estimated prevalence (Source: National Autistic Society, NAS). At present, the NAS estimates that just over 1 in 10 people have autism, so there are >700,000 individuals with autism in the UK.
Autism is a spectrum condition, and therefore affects different people in different ways. However, individuals with autism often experience difficulty with some, or all, of the following:
Social interaction: they may find it challenging to interpret both verbal and non-verbal communication (e.g. body language, tone). They may take things more literally or need more time to process information.
Over-/Under-sensitivity to light, sounds, taste, or touch: many will experience sensitivity to these and particular scenarios, such as loud workplaces, may result in sensory overload.
Intensely focused interests/hobbies: many individuals will have hobbies/interests on which they are highly focused. Though this can be beneficial if their work aligns with this, it may also lead them to neglect the tasks that they are less drawn to.
Severe anxiety: an NAS survey found that 47% of people with autism experience severe anxiety.
Repetitive behaviour: people with ASD often need to have a consistent routine and enjoy/are comforted by repetitive movements, such as rocking or fiddling.
Meltdowns or shutdowns: the former may result in physical or verbal outbursts, while the latter causes them to withdraw from their surroundings, either fully or partially. (Source: NAS)
Having autistic individuals as part of a workforce is associated with a wide range of both tangible and intangible benefits, including:
- Improved morale
- An inclusive and understanding organisational culture
- More varied approaches to problem solving
- Improved EDI more widely
Indeed, research suggests that individuals with autism can be up to 140% more productive than the average employee, when correctly matched to their job; despite this, unemployment for those with autism runs as high as 78% (Source: HBR).
What can be done to accommodate it in recruitment?
Autism is a disability and is therefore one of the 9 protected characteristics covered by the 2010 Equality Act; as such, you are required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that any autistic individuals can perform to the best of their ability. A key barrier for people with autism is the recruitment process.
Advertisements often list skills by default, such as excellent communication, which may not be necessary for the role, by which may deter individuals with autism. What’s more, they may be complex, with unnecessary jargon and unclear next steps.
Instead, you should make advertisements that:
- Are clear, simple and concise
- List exclusively necessary skills
- Highlight any information that is required
- Outline clearly the steps of the application process
- Use neutral and inclusive language
Interviews can be particularly daunting for individuals with ASD, as they often struggle with communication (both verbal and non-verbal), unfamiliar settings and abstract thinking, for example.
You can adjust this process by:
- Giving them questions in advance
- Providing clear guidance, in both written and visual forms (e.g. directions)
- Choosing a quiet environment, free from distractions (or allowing them to interview virtually if this is not possible)
- Allowing breaks
- Avoiding abstract questions
- Combining it with other tasks e.g. written tasks
- Prompting the candidate when more information is required
- Giving them the names and roles of each interviewer (e.g. note-taking)
- Trying an alternative process, such as a trial shift or period of work experience
What can be done to accommodate it in the workplace?
The most effective way to support someone with autism is through communication, as most autistic individuals will have techniques that they know work for them specifically. What’s more, open communication will allow them to provide feedback on any implemented adjustments, allowing you to adapt accordingly.
Though these will vary from person to person, some effective adjustments may include:
- Flexibility to work from home
- Clarifying expectations of role, particularly ‘unwritten rules’
- Clear instructions, given in both written and verbal form
- Creating a daily/weekly/monthly plan
- Breaking down large activities into smaller tasks
- One-to-one catch ups that are brief and frequent
- Allowing for regular breaks
- A quieter desk, or noise-cancelling headphones
- Support, such as through mentoring or coaching
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