What employers should know about autism in the workplace

Autism in the workplace is a highly underestimated issue. People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – diagnosed or undiagnosed – often feel misunderstood and may be perceived as abrupt, blunt, or even aggressive. However, only few changes are needed to create an autism-friendly workplace and ensure effective working relationships with people with ASD.

People are born with autism, and the condition stays with them for life. The brain of people with autism spectrum disorder processes information differently. Many people with ASD struggle with making sense of their surroundings and might lack, or seem to lack, empathy.

This prize-winning film illustrates how (some) children with ASD perceive the reality that surrounds them.

Autism affects about 1 in 150 people

Autism is not a rare condition. In Flanders alone, approximately 42,000 people have ASD. So, chances are that some of your employees have autism.

Not every person with autism is officially diagnosed. And even if they are, they may prefer to keep it to themselves out of fear of rejection, or because they think it will hinder their career. As an employer, you can help remove the taboo associated with this disorder. By offering an autism-friendly workplace, employees with ASD can be themselves more, which will benefit the working relationships and overall atmosphere among colleagues.

A confidential advisor can play a key role as a first point of contact and will facilitate the communication process. Together, the confidential advisor and the employee with ASD can develop a custom plan to identify obstacles in the workplace and remove them where possible.

3 practical tips on managing autism in the workplace

Unless an employee tells you they have ASD, it can be difficult to detect or discuss the condition. Many characteristics of autism are not unique to the disorder, and the symptoms and their severity vary widely. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all way to manage and support employees with autism.  

However, with a few simple changes, you can make the work environment easier to deal with for employees with ASD.

1. Clear instructions and arrangements  

Employees with autism spectrum disorder can have difficulties with social interaction and flexible thinking. This strained social interaction and communication and their sometimes rigid, inflexible thinking and behaviour can lead to conflict among colleagues.

Solution: anticipate this behaviour by communicating clearly. Make sure messages are clear and to the point, with no figurative language or excessive use of words. For instance, just say ‘this will be a difficult task’ instead of ‘this will be a tough nut to crack’.

Writing down step-by-step instructions can help as well, and by giving regular feedback to the employee with ASD, you can avoid misunderstandings.

When communicating internally, remember that the message must be specific, logical and visual. Visual support makes information accessible and understandable for employees with autism.

2. A sensory-free work environment

Workers with autism are often sensitive to certain types of sensory information. Some background  noises, such as people talking, can make it difficult for employees with ASD to concentrate.

Solution: install noise barriers between workstations, provide a quiet room, or allow the employee with ASD to wear headphones to block out disruptive noise.

Also, when designing the building (furnishings, furniture), it is important to consider people who process information in a different way. Flashing lights or strong light can be disruptive for employees with autism. Good air quality is also a benefit to all employees.

3. A structured, well-organised work environment

Providing a structured, well-organised environment can help employees with ASD significantly.

Solution: clearly set out tasks and deadlines in an easy-to-use overview, and try to stick to the schedule as much as possible.

Need help with autism in the workplace?

Mensura can assist you with all aspects of managing autism in the workplace. Questions? Contact us at psychosociale-aspecten@mensura.be.

Don’t have a confidential advisor in your organisation? Mensura’s external department for prevention and protection can screen potential confidential advisors on your behalf and support them in their role. We also offer mandatory basic training courses and annual supervision courses for confidential advisors.