May 16, 2023
Claire Jack Ph.D.
Recently, I was on a panel that included employers, autistic care professionals, and a psychologist discussing neurodiversity in the workplace. One of the questions I addressed concerned the measures employers can put into place to help autistic employees. Here are some of the measures my fellow panelists and I identified.
1. Clear communication.
Regardless of how intelligent or proficient at their job an autistic person is, or whether they work in retail or project management, they need clear communication. If you employ an autistic person, you need to find ways to directly communicate what is required of them—not just assume that they know what to do.
This might involve presenting information in small chunks so that they avoid feeling overwhelmed. It might involve providing clear written and visual instructions as to how a project should proceed, rather than assuming your employee has understood your verbal instructions.
It will likely also involve creating very clear structures for your employee to communicate with you. This might include having set times of day when you can be contacted regarding any problems or having regular meetings. Don’t assume that an autistic person will come to you if there is only a more informal structure in place; many will not understand the unspoken “rules” and will suffer in silence.
2. Sticking to agreed-on rules.
Autistic people tend to follow the rules. If there is a structure in place, you are responsible for clearly communicating if there have been changes. Otherwise, your employees will likely stick to what they have been told.
If you do change the rules, explain to your employee why this has been done. I have had many therapy clients who have followed agreed-upon structures in their workplaces that were implemented when they were hired—and who have then been reprimanded for continuing to follow structures that, at some point, had changed without them being informed.
3. Adapting meetings to meet their needs.
Autistic people often struggle with meetings, for various reasons. Often, it's because they process verbal information differently from neurotypical people, which might include slower processing times. It may only be a fraction slower (and has nothing to do with intelligence), but it can make it hard to keep up with conversations.
Yet rather than being open about missing out on important conversational threads, your employee is more likely to leave a meeting without fully taking in information. Putting countermeasures in place—which might include providing written follow-ups or asking meeting contributors to write a brief summary of the points they plan to make—can help considerably.
Another problematic area for autistic people can be knowing when to talk and when to stay silent. Sending out an agenda before a meeting detailing when particular people will be asked to talk can be very helpful. So can ensuring that you ask each person to contribute during the meeting. If you rely on everyone to speak up on their own, your autistic employee may simply avoid doing so.
4. Putting less emphasis on the social aspect of work.
It's common to see work as a social occasion, at least to some degree; after all, many lasting friendships have been formed in the workplace. But while this suits many people, some autistic people do not enjoy the social aspect of work; indeed, the idea of a team-building day may cause them so much anxiety they consider leaving their job.
People can be part of a team without being the most social person on that team. Some people simply do not have the capacity to form lasting connections in the workplace. If someone is doing their job well, rather than see their lack of sociality as a problem, it's better for employers to simply accept that this is how that person lives their life. Unless someone's behavior is causing friction with other employees, I argue that there is no reason to see a lack of extra-curricular socialising as an issue.
5. Creating a culture of acceptance.
No matter how large or small your organisation, it is important to foster a culture of acceptance. This means accepting that autistic employees may have particular needs and accepting those needs as valid, even if they differ from your own needs or those of your other employees.
Read the complete article on Psychology Today.