Autism@Work mentoring

People on the autism spectrum can find it hard to understand and interpret social interaction and relationships in the workplace. As an Autism@Work mentor, you can help your mentee navigate social nuances at work.

Page contents

The benefits of being an Autism@Work mentor

Mentoring can be very rewarding for mentors as well as beneficial for mentees.

As an Autism@Work mentor you will learn about different ways to think, different ways to learn, and a lot of different ways to be. You will become a better leader and stronger communicator, and you can expect to experience a personal sense of satisfaction knowing that you have helped your mentee. 

A prerequisite to being an Autism@Work Mentor is to attend “Introduction to Autism & Employment” training.

Definition of Mentoring

Mentoring is a “formalized process whereby a more knowledgeable and experienced person actuates a supportive role of overseeing and encouraging reflection and learning within a less experienced and knowledgeable person, so as to facilitate that person’s career and development”.

— Andy Roberts, “Mentoring Revisited”, 2000

It is critical to provide an autistic employee with a work environment that allows them to succeed.  Recruiting the right mentor to support an autistic employee can positively influence the employment outcomes for the individual.

The person taking on the role of mentor should be willing to invest time and energy into positively guiding the mentee. This may even require readjusting the mentor’s existing workload during the early phase of transition into the role. Ideally, the person will volunteer to become a mentor and be committed to the ongoing support of the mentee. 

Whenever possible, the person who takes on the role of a mentor should be a person who is likely to remain in that position for an extended period of time. Consistency and predictability will help the mentee feel more comfortable in their new workplace. 

The role of Autism@Work mentor

  • Provides socialisation and on-the-job support
  • Provides one-to-one individualised support for their mentee
  • Promotes equity in the workplace, removing barriers for full participation
  • Sets clear boundaries and clarifies mentor and mentee roles at the outset of the relationship. Is consistent in applying rules and boundaries
  • Gets to know, understand, and respects their mentee. Autism presents differently for every individual. It is important to learn a mentee’s strengths, abilities, communication preferences and how their autism may impact them in the workplace and in their life, generally.

Attributes, behaviours and skills of a successful mentor

One essential quality of a successful mentor is patience. A successful mentor demonstrates this through:

Respect:

  • Respectful and non-judgemental interactions. Never condescending the mentee
  • Providing a ‘safe space’ to chat, with confidentiality
  • Self-reflection and awareness of their working and communication styles. May need to adapt their communication style to suit their mentee. For example, their mentee may not understand humour and sarcasm or too many words.

Support:

  • Being accessible and approachable
  • Providing honest, specific and consistent feedback to support development
  • Listening actively: paraphrasing, empathizing, validating, keeping an open mind, being willing to hear a person’s ‘truth’.

A mentor transfers skills and knowledge to their mentee through being:

  • Professional and a positive role model
  • Sharing expertise
  • Guiding mentees in the unwritten rules of the workplace and social expectations.

A mentor needs to provide a safe environment in which mentees can speak openly and confidentially. Frequent and open communication is the key to successfully developing and maintaining these relationships. The mentee may have more questions than others as they will be enthusiastic to perform their new role well.

A successful mentor is organised.

  • Able to help when needed
  • Has a willingness to find work more suitable to their mentee’s working preferences
  • Helps establish goals (no matter how small) and helps to work towards those goals.

A good mentor is trustworthy.

  • Maker of promises and commitments that can be kept. Follows through on commitments
  • Committed to the mentoring relationship
  • Committed to learning about autism and promoting inclusion in the workplace
  • Committed to providing flexible support to their mentee. Understands the challenges that mentees may face, and that some days are harder than others.

A good mentor both takes the lead, empowering the mentee so that they can take the lead.

  • Advocate on behalf of their mentee
  • Builder of confidence and motivator of enthusiasm and initiative
  • Encourages social participation
  • Connects their mentee to other employees
  • Driven by the success and development of their mentee.

“Having an understanding mentor within the workplace that intuitively gets you, can reduce anxiety and isolation significantly”

— Barb Cook, “Autistic Women in the Workplace”, 2019

Building your mentoring relationship

Set boundaries and clarify expectations

Your role as a mentor is to guide your mentee and to let them know that you will try to help them succeed in the workplace.

Setting boundaries and clarifying expectation should be the first thing you do with your mentee.

Setting boundaries will help your mentee to tell the difference between their relationship with you and the relationship they have with friends, love-interests, and other members of staff (such as management).

If you don’t take steps to make sure you and your mentee understand your roles in relation to each other, it may lead to confusion later.

Establish trust

The relationship between a mentor and a mentee must be based on trust and respect.

You can establish trust by reassuring your mentee when they are in stressful situations.

Sometimes people on the autism spectrum have difficulty trusting other people. This can be because they have felt misunderstood or let down by other people in the past.

When people with autism have a problem, they want someone to listen to them and validate their concerns. They may not want you to ‘fix’ the problem. If you listen to your mentee’s problems, they will be more likely to come to you for guidance when more significant problems happen.

Provide reassurance  

Autistic people can be quite meticulous and may feel anxious if their performance is not perfect. 

Early in the mentoring relationship it is important to reassure your mentee that they are doing their best at their role, and to let them know when they are engaging well with their colleagues in the workplace, including management.

If you provide reassurance and understanding, your mentee will be more likely to come to you for help when they encounter problems.  

Be reliable and honest

Reliability and honesty are key to a successful mentoring relationship.

Make sure that you fulfill the commitments you make to your mentee.

Use clear language and follow through on your promises.

Be friendly and sincere, but always maintain professional boundaries. 

Communicate openly

A good mentor uses strong and open communication skills. 

Try to listen to your mentee without judgement, and communicate honestly and considerately. 

When you give advice and guidance, do not be condescending. 

People on the autism spectrum can interpret communication literally. Avoid using sarcasm until you have a good understanding of each other’s sense of humour.

Your mentee may not understand the benefit of having a mentor.

Take a lead in organising your mentoring meetings.

Remind your mentee of their achievements and the goals they’ve met along the way.

Autistic people usually do not gossip much. An autistic person may not have a position on issues of workplace politics. 

 Your mentee may not be a fan of “making small talk” 

Ask your mentee what they need help with

Ask your mentee what they need help with and what their goals are. This encourages self-awareness (knowledge of one’s self) and self-advocacy (the action of representing oneself). 

If your mentee has goals that relate to non-work activities, see if you can help. Even though it may be easier to give guidance about work goals, try to find a way to support mentees in setting goals, experiencing achievement, and celebrating of successes in any area big or small.

Always maintain sensitivity, awareness, and acceptance.

If your mentee has a problem, take them seriously. Never accuse your mentee of being oversensitive and don’t belittle their experience. Don’t say “don’t worry about it”. Don’t compare your mentee to other people.

Help to build an inclusive and supportive work culture 

Help to create a workplace culture where autistic people are included in a way they are comfortable with.

The best way to do this is to ask your mentee their opinion and talk about accommodations with them.

You can invite your mentee to attend social and work events that you are going to, where you can help them to meet other people in the organisation. Social events can be overwhelming for people on the autism spectrum, and your mentee may decide not to attend. However, people usually appreciate being invited to events, and your mentee may find that having someone to go with makes social events easier. 

Explain work culture 

Your mentee may feel unsure about social norms, unwritten rules, and non-verbal cues in the workplace. These may have caused them upset in the past, and may lead to them feeling awkward and unsure of themselves.   

Give your mentee information about work culture, such as:

  • dress code
  • celebrations and breaks
  • kitchen rules
  • hierarchy of “who’s who”
  • what they should avoid (for example talking too loudly, using their mobile phones during work hours, and taking private calls at their desk).

Give your mentee as much information as possible. This will reduce the likelihood of them making assumptions or experiencing confusion interpreting ‘grey’ areas.

Be a positive encouraging role model 

Be respectful of your mentee’s time, opinions, and decisions. 

Your mentee may ask questions to flesh out a problem or to gain greater understanding of a situation and your perspective will be helpful. 

Be encouraging and supportive of your mentee.

Be a positive role model by using positive behaviours, such as patience, tolerance, and reflective listening. 

Be considerate when giving feedback or compliments 

People on the autism spectrum are often emotionally sensitive. They can internalise put-downs, offhanded remarks, and criticism. 

Give context for both compliments and constructive feedback. Non-specific compliments like “good job today” are less helpful than specific compliments like “you finished your work very quickly today, which really helped the team get the project completed on time”. 

Always inform and give guidance when  your mentee’s behaviour has been unacceptable. If you let unacceptable behaviour continue, your mentee is less likely to learn and grow.

You may need to address inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour in the workplace confidentially and thoughtfully. These behaviours could include:

  • inappropriate conversation topics
  • volume of conversations
  • talking over other people
  • interrupting a conversation they were not invited to. 

Check in on your mentee regularly 

If your mentee is quiet, anxious, or withdrawn, discreetly ask if they are okay and try to find out what’s wrong. 

Give them reassurance and validation. It can be exhausting trying to make sense of a world with unwritten social rules. Providing your mentee with reassurance about little things regularly can stop the little things from becoming big things. This will help them to build confidence in themselves and, by extension, confidence that they are a valued employee and colleague.