Insights for Organisations Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Autism in the Workplace: Why Education and Support are Key

John Smith

Anyone on the autism spectrum can face unique challenges that others may not fully understand, especially in the workplace. The working environment often presents new obstacles that can be intimidating for adults on the autism spectrum, such as uncomfortable situations, which can overload their senses. Working alongside people who don’t fully understand autism or even discriminate against autistic employees is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of all.

Only one in five autistic people are in employment, according to official data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It’s vital that employers encourage the acceptance of autism in the workplace, now more than ever. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that neurodiversity is accommodated in the workplace and staff are fully integrated into the business. Even when working, autistic employees are often underemployed and are not given the opportunity to demonstrate their full potential, despite holding impressive credentials.

At FDM, we believe that the working environment should be welcoming to everyone, whether you’re neurotypical or neurodiverse. In celebration of Autism Awareness Week 2022, let’s take a look at why acceptance of autism is crucial in a working environment, and how education plays a vital role in preventing autism discrimination in the workplace.

What is Autism Awareness week?

Autism Awareness Week, also known as World Autism Acceptance Week, is an annual event spearheaded by the National Autistic Society (NAS). World Autism Day is about spreading awareness of the 700,000 people living with autism in the UK and educating those who are unaware of the disorder, helping to make the world a friendlier place to those who are affected by autism.

The lack of autistic talent in the workplace can be attributed to the employer’s lack of understanding of what Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) actually is and how it impacts an individual’s behaviour. Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that can affect people to varying degrees. It presents numerous challenges, from how individuals experience the world around them to how they interact with others.

Why is the acceptance of Autism vital in the workplace?

It is important to understand the barriers that autistic people face in the workplace, which is very difficult to do if you are not impacted by the disorder. Only 16% of those living with autism in the UK are in full-time employment – an astounding statistic considering the ongoing skills shortage, which is getting progressively worse.

Businesses are missing out on highly skilled individuals, which could help alleviate the skills shortage, simply by not making their working environment more accessible to those on the autism spectrum. Research by PwC found that 63% of global CEOs admit that they are concerned about not being able to find candidates with the required skills to fill job vacancies. According to the ONS, there were a record 1.2 million job vacancies between August and November, with more than half of businesses reporting a shortage of workers that left them unable to meet demands.

More companies must acknowledge the value of neurodiversity in the workplace, specifically that of autistic individuals, and be open to neuro and cognitive diversity in general. Unfortunately, it is a well-known fact that modern workplaces are not well designed for neurological and cognitive differences, although we are slowly making progress. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is not acceptable for those on the autism spectrum, especially when catering for high functioning autism in the workplace.

While some individuals on the autism spectrum may struggle with social skills, others may have unique skills that can make autism a valuable characteristic in the workplace. For example, some autistic candidates have above-average problem solving skills, giving them the ability to sustain high levels of concentration and attention to detail.

However, despite individuals with autism being excellent employees, candidates from this talent pool are greatly overlooked. Despite diversity and inclusion being a priority for the corporate world, many employers fail to adopt a three-dimensional approach to diversity. Inclusion towards different genders, races, religions and sexual orientations is now widely accepted as the right thing to do, but in order for businesses to see real growth, they must encompass cognitive and neurological diversity

Neuro-divergent teams, especially those on the autism spectrum, can help pool their skills, approaching challenges with more creativity and efficiency.

What role do employers play in creating an autism-friendly environment?

It is critical that organisations create a work environment where autistic employees can thrive. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that the needs of your employees are met. There are many instances where accommodations may need to be made; however, it’s not uncommon for individuals with disabilities to be reluctant to reveal certain details for the fear of being discriminated against or stigmatised. Employers must take steps to ensure their employees feel comfortable enough to disclose their disability so that the necessary accommodations can be made to support them.

Autism affects everyone differently, but those on the spectrum can often find difficulty dealing with sensory overload. In the workplace, there are various sights and sounds that can overwhelm autistic employees, so it’s vital that adjustments and modifications are made to their working day to allow them to succeed. Offering individuals relief from these everyday stimuli, such as fluorescent lights and the smell of perfume, can make all the difference to their comfort and make them feel supported.

11 ways to accommodate autism in the workplace

Here is a list of simple accommodations employers can make to ensure that autistic employees feel comfortable and able to excel in their job roles.

  1. Short breaks throughout the day – provides respite from periods of overstimulation.
  2. Dim or LED lighting – fluorescent lighting can be very overwhelming and cause discomfort.
  3. Noise-cancelling headphones – can help drown out loud noises, which can cause distress.
  4. Extra time during meetings – helps individuals process information without feeling pressured.
  5. Seating away from high foot traffic – makes individuals feel less vulnerable and overwhelmed.
  6. Screens around their desk – can provide relief from everyday distractions and stimuli.
  7. Availability of sensory toys – improves concentration and reduces feelings of anxiety.
  8. Access to a quiet room – provides an environment where individuals can de-stress when overstimulated.
  9. Limit the use of fragrances – prevents individuals from becoming overwhelmed by new scents.
  10. Blue screen glasses – can reduce the glare from screens, which can overstimulate individuals.
  11. Flexible work times – help individuals navigate a working style that helps them thrive.

Please bear in mind that these are just examples, and you should always give employees the opportunity to tell you what they need specifically.

How can workplaces provide support for Autistic employees?

Employers can help make the world a friendlier place for autistic candidates this National Autism Awareness Week and going forwards. Autistic employees are often disadvantaged in the working environment, simply because of other people’s lack of understanding and the lack of support available to them.

The key to overcoming challenges and making the process successful for all those involved is support. There are a number of ways companies can ensure effective and pleasant working relationships.

1. Give concise and specific instructions

Autistic employees respond better to tasks when clear instructions are given from the offset. This helps lay the foundations for good communication, relationships and working practices. Vague instructions can cause confusion, so it’s important to provide specifics.

For example: instead of saying, ‘send everyone an email with the attached documentation’, consider asking that they send the email to specific people and give them the names of those individuals.

Having clear documentation that outlines internal processes, expectations and any useful templates can be helpful to both managers and autistic employees. Being able to draw upon the documentation when needed enables managers to provide additional clarity and support when setting tasks and deadlines.

2. Provide regular training and mentoring

Training is invaluable to any employee, none more so than individuals on the autism spectrum. Whether the training is provided by a manager or assigned mentor, informally on the job or in a formal setting, clear and structured training gives employees the opportunity to develop their skills further. In particular, it can help autistic employees feel more comfortable and supported in their role.

3. Create a structured working environment

Some people with autism require a structured working environment that helps outline the priorities and activities. Working closely with them to prioritise tasks and organise deadlines in a daily, weekly or even monthly timetable can help alleviate any uncomfortable feelings.

Breaking larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps can also be beneficial, especially as some autistic employees appreciate specifics, such as start and finish times, lunch and break times, project timeframes and regular meetings, as this can help develop a routine.

4. Offer reassurance during periods of stress

Autistic people can be very meticulous about things, especially their work, and if they believe that their performance is not perfect, it can make them feel very anxious. Whether the printer breaks or there’s an IT problem, certain scenarios can be very stressful for individuals, so it’s important to offer words of reassurance. For example, explain that “If the printer breaks, there’s another one on the second floor that you can use.”

Likewise, there are numerous things that employees cannot control, such as occasional delays to public transport. In these situations, reassure individuals that it’s not a problem and it happens to everyone. Autistic employees can often benefit from being paired with a ‘buddy’ – an empathetic colleague – who they can go to during periods of anxiety and stress.

5. Help other staff become more aware

Providing an autistic employee gives consent to their condition being disclosed, it can be beneficial for other employees to be educated on autism and how they can be supportive. Employers should consider offering professional training that looks at how autistic people can be affected by everyday situations and how their colleagues can help make them feel more comfortable at work. Sometimes, individuals might even find it useful to share a document explaining how their colleagues can provide support.

How to help employees overcome challenges with high functioning autism

Like all people on the autism spectrum, people with high functioning autism can find social interaction and communication very challenging. They can get so easily stressed by social situations that they can shut down, unable to make eye contact or small talk. People who are high functioning can also be devoted to their routine, which can lead to repetitive habits that might seem odd to their peers. No two people with high functioning autism are the same, and where one person might struggle to hold down a job, others can manage okay. It all depends on the individual and the situation.

There are ways employers can accommodate high functioning autism in the workplace and help support employees through their challenges. Let’s take a look.

  1. Dealing with anxiety – Autistic people can often experience severe anxiety, but due to their decreased ability to communicate their feelings, they may struggle to express this. Anxiety can manifest in various different ways, from social phobia to shutting down. Employers can support autistic employees by checking in with them regularly and understanding their triggers to establish a plan they can follow when things become overwhelming.
  1. Transition planning – Helping autistic employees develop strategies to help them cope with changes in their working environment is referred to as ‘transition planning’. It builds a routine that can offer independence and resilience, making periods of uncomfortable change less overwhelming. Enacting change in a way that feels predictable and safe can significantly reduce anxiety and stress, which leads to behavioural changes.
  1. Overcoming change – Change in life is inevitable, but it can cause distress for those with high functioning autism due to the processing and sensory aspects of their diagnosis. Familiar environments and routines are welcomed by autistic employees, as their heightened anxiety can make periods of change very stressful. Planning in advance for change and preparing their routines for change is essential for high functioning employees to thrive.  
  1. Long-term planning – There are some longer-term transitions that will require more thorough planning, such as office moves or external work events, for example. Gathering as much information about the situation, from what and who it involves to whom the key points of support are, can aid the development of a robust plan to help high functioning employees prepare. Lessons can then be learned on how to help individuals prepare for the next big transition.
  1. Bullying and discrimination – Unfortunately, bullying and discrimination is something that we hear of all too often and can happen to people of all ages and abilities. Employers have a duty to their employees to ensure that they are safe and respected in the workplace. Enforcing a no-tolerance policy for workplace bullying and discrimination can help protect individuals who are more vulnerable to such unpleasant behaviour.

What role does education play in promoting acceptance in the workplace?

Creating autism-friendly working environments is largely down to acceptance, but education also plays a vital role. More companies are now actively working to better support and recognise autistic talent through educating the wider workforce. Unlocking the benefits of autism in the workplace starts with educating managers, senior team members and human resources to help them understand the needs of autistic employees.

In most cases, autistic employees need simple adjustments to help them thrive at work and it’s vital that the business knows how to cater to these. Taking advantage of external training courses can change the way companies think about autism, enabling managers and colleagues to improve working relationships with autistic individuals and prevent discrimination against autism in the workplace.

Unfortunately, it is often the lack of understanding about people’s differences that is the root cause of discriminatory behaviour. Understanding simple differences between neurodiverse and neurotypical individuals can significantly affect how autism is perceived at work. Employees should be encouraged to think about the potential causes of anxiety at work for autistic people, making themselves more aware of how they can help support their autistic colleagues. 

Taking the time to get to know your autistic colleagues, including their interests, skills and challenges creates an environment where everyone feels comfortable.

What impact does discrimination have on autistic employees?

It’s a common misconception that Autism Spectrum Disorder can prevent individuals from thriving in the working environment, when in actual fact it’s discrimination that holds them back. The workplace can be very challenging for autistic employees to navigate, without the addition of having to deal with discrimination from colleagues. Discrimination means treating someone differently or unjustly for a specific reason, such as a disability.

The law prevents employers from discriminating against people because they have autism, and they must be given equal employment opportunities. Essentially, this means that employers are obligated to make the necessary accommodations, such as providing extra equipment, to ensure that autistic employees are able to succeed in the working environment. However, discrimination is not only the employer’s responsibility – employees also have a personal duty to ensure their behaviour does not discriminatory.

Although some discriminatory behaviour may be unintentional, the impact it can have on individuals is detrimental. It can cause negative behaviours to develop that can contribute to individuals shutting down from society completely. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work, regardless of any disabilities, so it’s vital that employers educate employees and eliminate any instances of discrimination immediately.

Why is it important to have a neuro-diverse workforce?

Neurodiversity in the workplace is a competitive advantage for any organisation. Everyone is different one way or another. After all, we’re all born and raised differently. So why should being neurodiverse impact how employees perform in the workplace?

Organisations can benefit from neurodiversity just like they can from diversity in cultural and ethnic backgrounds, gender, experience and training, and other individual qualities. Although neurodiverse people are different from “neurotypical” people, they can bring a new perspective to a business’s approach and help create value. With over 100,000 neurodiverse young adults turning 18 every year in the UK, the neurodiverse population remains a relatively untapped talent pool.

The technology industry is leading the way, with a strong record of hiring neurodiverse candidates, particularly those on the autism spectrum. Managers in tech companies are not experts in autism by any means, but they don’t hesitate to offer adjustments to those who need it. Maintaining comfortable working environments promotes more casual encounters where autistic employees can demonstrate their skills and thrive, which builds the foundations of a support ecosystem.

This approach suggests that businesses should embrace an alternative philosophy where innovation is driven by acceptance. Companies who access more of their employees’ talents and embrace their neurodiversity will see a considerable payoff.