Supporting autistic staff in the workplace

Ongoing support in the workplace for autistic staff.

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Creating an environment for success – for all staff

  • Learn about autism from and with your employee
  • Person centred and individualised support.
  • Get to know your employee and what they need help with.

Removing barriers: the social model of disability

Many people are used to thinking of disability in terms of something being wrong with the disabled person. This is often called ‘the medical model’ of disability.

‘The social model’ of disability offers an alternative way of thinking about disability.

Work accommodations are designed to ensure autistic employees have the same chance to work as effectively as anyone else.

Accommodations and strategies are not “one size fits all” and must reflect the needs of each autistic person.

“People are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference” – (SCOPE)

2 images - 1 showing 3 people of different heights standing on the same size boxes to look over a fence. The second image is 3 people of different heights standing on the boxes that allows them to all to look over the fence.

Image source: https://medium.com/@CRA1G/the-evolution-of-an-accidental-meme-ddc4e139e0e4 Retrieved on 31/05/2020

Refer to more information on workplace accommodations.

Barriers autistic people face at work

Autistic employees encounter employment barriers in areas such as: ​

  • The sensory environment ​
  • How work is organised​
  • Communication​
  • Training​
  • Social interaction​
  • Workplace change​

These employment barriers can impact on work performance​ and should be addressed to ensure autistic employees can be effective at work.

Possible factors influencing work effectiveness

  • Working memory: Working memory is the information we hold actively in our minds for use in thinking. Working memory is critical for learning and completing new tasks. Someone with poor working memory may become overwhelmed if they are given too much information at once, and they may not be able to follow multi-step verbal instructions.
  • Executive functioning: chunking the task down, prioritising, managing time, initiating, and being flexible.  Stress can also impact on people’s executive functioning capabilities.
  • Theory of mind: is the ability to recognise and comprehend the thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions of others. Individuals on the spectrum can have difficulty understanding emotions, the perspective and intention of others or perceive how their own behaviour will impact others.
  • Central Coherence: is getting the point or ‘gist’ of things. Pulling information from different sources to establish a greater meaning. A supervisor shouldn’t assume that their employee understands their perspective or the overall objectives of a task. If a task is not completed effectively it is probably because the employee did not have all the information they needed.
  • Context: understanding all the different variables that can relate to the situation or task. Guessing and calculating without having absolutes.
  • Sensory processing: heightened anxiety from noises, smells or conversations making it hard to concentrate.
  • Hyper Focus: a deep and concentrated style of thinking may lead to being absorbed in one task at hand. Changing tasks can be difficult.
  • Hidden curriculum: understanding office politics and social relationships, deciphering nonverbal cues, gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice.

Strategies for success

If your employee on the autism spectrum is showing signs of struggling with a task please consider: ​

  • Giving clear explanations, deadlines​ and parameters
  • Providing structured tasks, with logical and sequential steps
  • Helping to break down and initiate the task​
  • Providing clear written steps​
  • Providing context​ and bigger picture objectives of the task
  • Minimising sensory distractions
  • Printing to-do lists
  • Providing notepads for writing notes
  • ​Showing examples of what you need​
  • Preparing checklists​
  • Creating diagrams ​​
  • Allowing time when transitioning between tasks
  • Checking for understanding ​
  • As the task progresses, keep checking on progress​.
  • Giving explanations of the social expectations of your workplace.

Providing patient and ongoing explanations and training will bring significant benefits.

Autism and communication at work

Informal one to one discussions

When your autistic employee commences it is helpful to take on an observational role. Your autistic employee may be the last to know that they are stressed or not coping in the work environment. Regular informal chats will go a long way to helping your autistic employee feel comfortable and settled. Regularly check to make sure there are no interpersonal challenges or misunderstandings within the team.

In all of the informal discussions it is important to listen non-judgementally, provide sensitive but direct feedback, encourage problem solving and provide reassurance in stressful situations. 

Checking for understanding

It is not unusual for autistic people to say they understand something when they don’t.

This might happen because:

  • They think that they do understand​
  • Without context they don’t know that they don’t know ​
  • They don’t want to be seen as ‘stupid’​
  • They’re acting on reflex, and say say yes automatically​

Because of this, checking for understanding is a crucial part of training your autistic employee. ​

Resolving conflicts

Conflict can develop in any team.​ Some features of autism can lead to specific kinds of conflict.

Autistic employees can find it difficult to understand other people’s feelings. Sometimes they accidentally say the wrong thing, or behave in an unacceptable way without meaning to.​

It’s not unusual for acts like talking too much or being ‘brutally’ honest to cause ill feelings with other team members.​

Communication and social interaction are areas that may need ongoing coaching.​

If conflict happens, it’s important to remember that it is probably not deliberate. ​

Managing inappropriate behaviour

If inappropriate behaviour happens at work,

  • Seek understanding of why the behaviour happened – there will be a reason​
  • Clearly explain what the inappropriate behaviour was and why it was not acceptable.​
  • Give examples of appropriate behaviour​
  • Explain your perspective and allow your autistic employee the opportunity to present their perspective
  • Be clear on boundaries within the workplace
  • Remember to recognise what your autistic employee does well.​

Avoiding addressing inappropriate behaviour is not a good long-term strategy​.

Managing an Autistic employee – 15 minutes

This training demonstrates some of the common barriers to employment success for autistic employees. It provides strategies for working with different working styles, such as hyper focus and black and white thinking, and gives tips to ensure the right work environment is created.

Masking and camouflaging ​

Many people on the autism spectrum mask or camouflage their autism. ​Women are more likely to mask than men.

‘Masking’ means developing compensatory strategies to fit it or pass as ‘normal’.

To people who mask, the non-autistic or ‘neurotypical’ world can seem like an alien culture where the implicit social rules are confusing. 

Many autistic people report that the motivation for masking is to avoid bullying, or to have a chance at friendships.

Workplaces often require employees to interact with each other frequently. People on the autism spectrum can find it exhausting keeping up the façade at work.​ ​

Autistic people can also feel that masking leads to a loss of authenticity, which can erode self-esteem. ​

Monthly work appraisal

The monthly Work Performance Questionnaire (WPQ) is a set of questions covering aspects of an employee’s performance and behaviour within the work environment. It provides a performance snapshot and the ability to compare the employee’s perceptions to their supervisor’s perceptions. Comparing the completed questionnaire helps initiate conversations around recognising good performance, identifying any areas for development and setting goals for growth.

The WPQ tool is designed to be a catalyst for a structured conversation to promote the development of your employee. In cases where self-assessment and supervisor assessment ratings differ it is important to have considerate and factual conversations around why their ratings differ from yours.

Autism and Mental Health at work – 17 minutes

This training aims to help you to recognise and understand the signs and behaviours associated with autism and anxiety at work. Anxiety is a naturally occurring emotion for everyone. This training suggests initial support strategies for autistic employees, to avoid escalation of anxiety and/or other mental health conditions.

Further reading

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