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Everyone dreams of a workplace that is inclusive and supportive of each of its members. But many people on the autism spectrum are excluded from the workplace because of misconceptions, failings in recruitment processes or a lack of reasonable adjustments.

As a leader, you can make your company a more autism-friendly place and follow the examples set by companies like Microsoft, HP Inc. and Google.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Commonly known as ASD or autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lifelong developmental condition due to differences in the brain. These differences can make it difficult for someone to communicate and interact with other people.

It might be challenging to understand what people mean when they refer to autism and what it means to have autism. Autism exists on a scale and can impact people very differently. The symptoms, challenges, and support people need will differ from one person with autism to the next. Some require little or no support to do well at home or work, but others need more assistance to function independently.

How common is autism in the UK?

Around 1 in 100 adults have autism. Yet numbers are rapidly increasing as more people become aware of the symptoms and seek a diagnosis. However, some employees will still be unaware that they have the condition, and others may have an indication but not want to pursue a diagnosis.

Although autism exists on a scale, specific parameters must be present for a medical diagnosis. Therefore, it is also crucial to remember that some employees will have many of the symptoms and challenges that autism presents but will not receive a medical diagnosis. But this does not mean they do not need or shouldn’t have your support.


Is autism classed as a disability?

Autism is often referred to as a ‘hidden disability’. However, many people with the condition don’t consider themselves ‘disabled’ or having a ‘disorder’, despite the condition’s name. Regardless of how someone views their situation or wishes to identify, autism might constitute a disability, a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Therefore, to prevent the risk of autism discrimination in the workplace, we recommend you obtain appropriate legal advice if you are unsure whether the Act applies.

Autism struggles in the workplace

Here are some challenges that people with autism may face in the workplace.

  • Difficulty picking up on social cues and understanding sarcasm
  • Feel uncomfortable with direct eye contact or make prolonged eye contact
  • May need longer to process information and need to ask questions
  • Feel anxious if instructions are not concise and specific
  • Over or under sensitivity to sounds, smells, tastes, or touch
  • Anxiety (potentially extreme) when facing change.

Supporting autistic employees in the workplace

1. Ensure the work environment is well-structured

Many employees with autism thrive in a structured environment. Therefore, aim to create a structure wherever possible and keep change to a minimum. For example, fixed hours as opposed to variable shifts and dedicated desks rather than making everyone hot desk. If you don’t currently have many processes in place, discuss this with employees, as they may be able to help create them and enjoy doing it!


2. Support individuals when change is necessary

Change is inevitable, but what you can do is provide additional support to those who struggle with change. Consult employees as far in advance as possible and create a plan with them. For example, if someone is moving teams, a meeting with you and their new manager before the change can make a world of difference.

3. Adjust your approach when it comes to eye contact

Some people with autism struggle with eye contact. If that’s the case, find out what they are comfortable with. For example, if they don’t like direct eye contact, it can help if you look slightly to the left or right of their face. You can still see their facial expressions and body language in your peripheral vision, but there is minimal direct eye contact. It also feels more natural than trying not to look at someone.

4. Help raise awareness of autism in the workplace

Many problems arise from misunderstandings or when people make judgements about those with autism or the condition itself. Raising awareness of autism and neurodiversity in the workplace can help build an inclusive and safe environment. One that everyone would enjoy working in.

5. Transform your recruitment processes

Most standard recruitment processes make it almost impossible for people with autism to secure a position. Recruiting managers often intentionally put candidates under unnecessary pressure, ask vague questions and pass judgment on behaviours such as handshakes and eye contact. Instead, provide detailed and specific instructions regarding all elements leading up to and during the interview. Provide candidates with copies of the interview questions in advance and make them explicit. Prompt candidates for further information when needed and consider splitting up extended interviews to give candidates a break.


6. Get to know your employee

Everyone is different so getting to know your employees, what helps them to flourish and frustrates them, is the only way to ensure you provide the best support possible. This is particularly important regarding sensory sensitivity and coping mechanisms should they become anxious or shut down.

These small changes will make your company a more autism-friendly workplace and increase diversity. You’ll also find that such modifications benefit other employees and candidates.

At Delphinium, we are proud to provide training to increase neurodiversity awareness in the workplace. If you’d like to discuss this, why not schedule a free discovery call now? We’d love to learn more about you and how we can support you in raising awareness in your organisation.

Published 28th September 2022.