What is Autism?

Different people have different experiences of autism. The characteristics of autism vary from person to person. This means every person’s experience of autism is different. The characteristics outlined here don’t apply to every autistic person. It’s important to treat each person on their merits.

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‘Autistic person’ and ‘person on the autism spectrum’

Different people on the autism spectrum prefer to be described in different ways.

Some people prefer identity-first language, for example ‘autistic person’.

Others prefer person-first language, for example ‘person on the autism spectrum’.

In the Autism@Work program, we use a mix of both in order to reflect this diversity.

The autistic brain 

Autistic and non-autistic brains are neurobiologically different. 

Different, not less. 

The left side brain scan is of Temple Grandin, autistic inventor and doctor.​ 

The a comparison of 2 brains one is more colourful than the other.

— Scan done by Prof Walt Schneider, Brain Imaging; Connectivity Mapping; Learning, University of Pittsburgh​ 

Image source: Article about Temple Grandin

There is a natural difference in how human brains are wired and how they process information.

A linear line with speech bubble "Sometimes when people think of this word they think of the autism spectrum as being like this". A spiral of colours with motor skills, perception, executive function, sensory and language spaced around it and a speech bubble explaining "You see, the autistic spectrum looks something more like this". The spiral of colours and more speech bubbles "The spectrum consists of many different 'traits', or ways in which the brain processes information", "Some traits create difficulties in every day life (hence being diagnosed)" "But also many traits are useful in every day life".

Image source: Rebecca Burgess

Some of the differences people on the autism spectrum experience relate to: 

  • Executive functioning 
  • Sensory processing 
  • Central coherence 
  • Hyperfocus 

Executive functioning 

Executive functioning skills are the mental processes that everyone uses to: 

Image source: Dr Brown

  • Plan 
  • Focus attention 
  • Self-regulate 
  • Remember instructions  
  • Juggle multiple tasks successfully 

Executive functioning in the workplace 

Anyone can have reasons why we are unable to do our best work. Loud conversations at work, our bus to work arriving late, feeling unwell, or stress from a family situation may all impact our ability to concentrate and think clearly. Different communication styles may have led to misunderstanding the task. Not wanting to be seen to ask lots of questions might prevent an employee from asking questions. 

An example:  

An autistic employee has been given a task, and they said that they were fine to meet the deadline and that they know how to do the task. However the work was not done by the deadline, or was not done correctly.  

Strategies for success 

  • Spend time breaking down a task, documenting the steps and explaining the process 
  • Check for understanding and clarity along the way 
  • Provide visual support 
  • Give a demonstration of the task and help with getting the task started 
  • Don’t overload your autistic employee with information and conflicting deadlines 

Central coherence

Central Coherence is the ability to understand context. It’s about ‘seeing the big picture’ or getting the ‘gist’ of a situation. 

Some people on the autism spectrum may understand small details but not see how they relate to the whole situation. 

Weak central coherence can be seen as ‘a detail-focused cognitive style’. 

Social conventions that most people understand and expectations about work may need to be explained and broken down for employees on the autism spectrum. 

Central coherence in the workplace 

An example:  

An autistic colleague gets frustrated that the work is not being done in the most logical way (by his way of thinking). However, in this case the most logical way is not possible for the business (for example the IT infrastructure cannot do what he wants). 

Creative thinking for process improvement should always be encouraged. However, it is important to be sensitive to this type of frustration, and provide guidance that will help your autistic employee understand the scope. 

Strategies for success 

Before starting new work, explain: 

  • the objectives of the task 
  • why it is being done 
  • why it must be done in a certain way 
  • what the desired result is 

Sensory processing 

Sensory processing is the way that a person receives, processes, and organises the information they receive from their senses, the environment, and their own body. 

Our sensory system takes information from our senses, interprets the information and creates output based on the information. 

For many autistic people, their sensory system is programmed differently to that of a neurotypical person (non-autistic). Information received through the senses may be interpreted differently, and as a consequence, the output based on the interpretation is often different. 

An autistic individual can experience certain sounds as being too loud, lights as being too bright, and textures as being painful.  

If these are coupled with interoceptive difficulties, the individual might experience an extreme response to the sensory input. 

Sensory processing in the workplace 

Every person has a unique sensory profile. It is important that sensory considerations be tailored to the needs of each employee on the autism spectrum. This is especially important when choosing the environment the person is going to work in.  

Certain sounds, sights, smells, textures and tastes can create a feeling of sensory overload for autistic people. This can create heightened anxiety. 

Autistic people can also use their sensory processing differences to help them to self-regulate when they are feeling overloaded. This can be referred to as ‘stimming’. Some common stims are: 

  • Using a hand fidget 
  • Smoothing fabric 
  • Squishing hand putty 
  • Moving their body  

Strategies for success 

Providing a calm and supportive working environment will minimize anxiety and lead to less sensory impact on learning. 

Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus is a deep and concentrated thinking style.  ​A person who is in a state of hyperfocus may become intensely focused on a task and oblivious to everything else.  ​ 

Hyperfocus can make transitioning between tasks difficult. ​A person can also become so focused and immersed on the task that they lose track of time.  

Someone in a state of hyperfocus may have difficulty moving onto the next task until every possible avenue is considered.​ 

In the right role, these are all positive traits.​ 

Strategies for success 

Allow your employee time to transition between tasks.​ 

Alexithymia

Alexithymia is ‘the inability to recognize or describe one’s own emotions.’ (OUP, 2020) 

People with alexithymia have problems: 

  • Identifying feelings 
  • Understanding feelings 
  • Describing feelings 
  • Distinguishing between feelings and bodily sensations of emotional arousal 
  • Identifying internal cues relating to being stressed, such as tense muscles and fast heartbeats 

It’s hard for people with alexithymia to regulate their reaction to stress due to a lack of awareness of what the feelings are. 

Alexithymia also makes it difficult for individuals to identify and respond to emotions in others. These issues can lead to difficulties in social settings and interpersonal relationships.  

Alexithymia has a strong link to autism. Several studies indicate that approximately half of autistic people are likely to have alexithymia, about 10 times the prevalence rate in neurotypical people.  

Interoception 

Interoception is the sense that helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body. It is less known than the other senses, and is sometimes considered our 8th sense. 

An example of interoception is realising you are hungry and remembering to take a break to have lunch. An autistic person might not read these messages until they are extremely hungry, perhaps two hours after lunchtime.​ 

Our ability to self-regulate is closely tied to our interoceptive system.  

The interoceptive system: 

  • Provides an inner sense of wellbeing 
  • Understands what the gut is doing or not doing 
  • Raises anxiety if these ‘feelings’ are disordered 
  • Can make poor risk assessments or perceive things as worse than they are 

Autistic people may have difficulty making sense of bodily information. 

If people become focused on a task, they may misread or miss altogether the cues sent out by their body to indicate fatigue, thirst, hunger or a need to go to the toilet. 

Interoception may also affect the interpretation of emotions.  

If a person has difficulty tuning into bodily cues (feelings) that help them to interpret their emotions, it will be harder for them to identify the emotions. 

Interoceptive awareness that occurs when the cues (feelings) become too big may explain why a person on the autistic spectrum may become overwhelmed or need to ‘shut down’.