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How To Accommodate Adults with Autism in the Workplace

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

As our society becomes more aware of autism and the various ways it manifests differently in individuals, we must also become more aware of the likelihood of autism in the workplace.

Research conducted in 2016 puts the incidence of autism in Ireland at 1% of the population, similar to rates in the UK and US.

People with autism are also valuable workers because of their attention to detail, ability to focus, and creative thinking skills. They excel at doing research and routine activities, and they usually stay with a job once recruited. However some employers can be reluctant to recruit (or even interview) career seekers with autism.

In this blog, we’ll explore why adults with autism struggle to find employment and how employers can support employees who have autism. Let’s begin by defining autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and what it looks like.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism Speaks defines autism spectrum disorder as “a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.” Autism is divided into many subtypes, each with its own set of challenges and strengths. Autism may be diagnosed as early as 18 months, and signs usually appear between the ages of two and three.

Why Do Adults with Autism Struggle to Find Work?

Adults with autism are less likely to find work after graduation than people with other disabilities. According to studies, up to 90% of people with autism are either underemployed or unemployed. Many employers are unaware of ASD and the advantages that workers with autism can bring to their workplace.

Here are a few reasons why adults with autism struggle to find suitable, full-time employment:

People with Autism May Lack “Soft Skills”

Many individuals with autism lack soft skills, which include things like:

  • People skills

  • Social skills

  • Communication skills

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Social graces

  • Time management skills

Adults with autism can be overlooked during job interviews as they may not have some or all of these soft skills. Employers may not understand the underlying issues behind the person’s lack of soft skills, and instead write them off as uncaring or disrespectful.

People with Autism Struggle with Social Interaction

Adults with autism can have a hard time reading social cues, which can make them appear disrespectful during conversations. People with autism may be unaware of the emotions of those around them because they have trouble expressing their own feelings. All of this has the potential to offend other employees, leading them to form a negative opinion of the person with autism.

People with Autism Struggle with Social Communication

People with autism can take statements literally because they have difficulty understanding the complexities of social interactions. They may also find it difficult to decide when it is their turn to speak or listen during a conversation. As a consequence, they can talk for extended periods or seem uninterested.

Adults with autism are also uncomfortable with transition. As a result, they could have trouble looking ahead or preparing for the uncertainties of the future. If they're asked about time management or how they deal with change during a job interview, these characteristics can alienate them from potential employers.

What Are the Types of Employment for Adults with Autism?

Competitive, supported, and secure/sheltered employment are the three primary forms of employment for adults with autism. Here's a brief rundown of each form and how it approaches autism at work:

  • Competitive employment is where the employee is completely independent in the work environment. They can ask their employer for reasonable accommodations and/or a position that requires limited social interactions.

  • Supported employment is where the employee has a support system in place. They might have a job that’s developed just for them and their strengths.

  • Secure/sheltered employment typically occurs in a facility-based setting. The employee receives behavior training and is taught a variety of work skills.

How Can Employers Support Employees with Autism?

There are a number of different ways employers can help their employees with autism. To begin with, employers must have a thorough understanding of what autism is and how it presents itself in the workplace. Employers must also learn how to treat and support staff with autism in a reasonable manner. They must also ensure that all staff are aware of how to communicate with someone who has autism.

Employers should focus on whether someone with autism is capable of doing the job while interviewing them. Managers need to focus on the individual's talents rather than any perceived limitations triggered by autism.

Here are some helpful hints for employers who are helping workers with autism.

Provide Clear Directions

It’s important to provide employees with autism with clear, succinct directions and guidelines for performing their job. Employers should thoroughly explain what’s expected of them and also explain the unwritten rules of the office. It can be helpful to provide written instructions for employees with autism so they have something to reference later if necessary.

Provide Reasonable Accommodations

One of the best ways employers can support employees with autism is by providing reasonable accommodations. These include (but aren’t limited to) the following:

  • Providing noise-reducing headphones if noise sensitivity is an issue.

  • Turning off or dimming overhead lights if light sensitivity is an issue.

  • Avoiding eye contact if this makes the person with autism uncomfortable.

  • Respecting personal space and using verbal praise to show kindness, instead of touch.

  • Holding one-to-one meetings with the person to reduce social clutter and distraction.

  • Allowing the individual to follow their own regimented schedule to reduce their anxiety.

  • Providing information about changes in tasks or the workplace well in advance.

Educate and Train Other Employees

In many cases, other employees may not understand how to interact with people with autism. This is why education and training is so important. The employee’s colleagues should understand that the person with autism is not trying to be rude and that there are genuine needs behind their reasonable accommodations.

Sensitivity training can help the entire team understand how to work together and deal with potential miscommunications. Employers can also create a training document for other staff that explains how they can best support and work with the person with autism.

Designate a mentor or a Buddy

If a person with autism is anxious, confused, or stressed, having a mentor in the workplace can be highly beneficial. The mentor should have advanced experience in dealing with people who have autism so that they can assist and encourage their coworker.

Consistent performance reviews are essential for any employee's growth and success. They are, however, particularly relevant for people with autism. Employers should conduct regular, brief evaluations in which they provide positive (but direct) input on the employee's performance.

“Behavior is communication. Change the environment and behaviors will change.” – Lana David


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