What is neurodiversity? 13 ways to support autism at work

What is neurodiversity? 13 ways to support autism at work

Sam Hernandez is a Leadership and Neurodiversity Consultant at EW Group and delivers training in diversity and leadership development across Europe and the Middle East. She holds a master’s degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Biopsychology.

Drawing of stick people with one in rainbow colours

Huge progress has been made for people living with developmental conditions like autism and ADHD. Scientific advancements help us to understand these conditions better, whilst role models are breaking the social stigma surrounding these differences in how our brains function and process information. The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against developmental conditions, and it’s required that reasonable adjustments are made in the workplace to level the playing field.

One in seven of us has a neurodiverse condition (neurodiversity describes how our brains function and process information differently). And despite many workplaces continue to largely cater for the cognitive “norm”, more organisations are making slight changes so that all of their team can reach their full potential. Neurodiversity is a key asset to organisations as developmental conditions, like autism, offer a vast assortment of perspectives and ways of thinking in business. Memory, lateral thinking and problem solving are some of the many benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce.

World Autism Awareness Day shines a light on autism each year. The day takes place every 2 April and raises awareness for people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) around the world.

Continue reading to learn what autism is and 13 tips for embracing and managing neurodiverse staff.

 What is autism?

Autism is an invisible developmental disorder where challenges with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviours are observed. Signs often manifest themselves gradually during the first three years of life.

Autism is associated with a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It affects information processing in the brain, particularly how nerve cells and synapses connect and organise themselves.

People with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) often have hidden associated conditions, including:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • Dyslexia – problems with reading, writing and spelling.
  • Dyspraxia – a condition which affects physical coordination.
  • Dyscalculia – difficulty with arithmetic.
  • Speech and language difficulties.

 Why does autism awareness matter?

  • Globally, autism is estimated to affect 24.8 million people as of 2015.
  • About 1.5% of children are diagnosed with ASD in developed countries.
  • In the US, approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD.
  • Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
  • Autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, but minority groups tend to be diagnosed later and less often.
  • According to research by The National Autistic Society (NAS) more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are currently living with autism.
  • In the UK, only 16% of adults with autism are currently in full-time employment.

Key focus areas

ASD is a spectrum condition which means it affects different people in different ways. But broadly speaking, people with autism have difficulty in three areas:

  • social communication.
  • social interaction.
  • social imagination.

Social communication

Some people with ASD experience difficulty in holding conversations. Other individuals can be completely non-verbal, and some may communicate using signs and signals.

Most people with autism find challenging to understand the intricacies of verbal and non-verbal cues. This means they often take words literally. Idioms and expressions seem therefore puzzling. Rhetorical questions, sarcasm, metaphors, allegories and irony are equally difficult for them to understand.

Some examples:

  • When someone says “I killed two birds with one stone” a person with autism may believe that two birds have actually been killed.
  • They may talk at length without realising that others might no longer be interested or appear disinterested in what others are saying.

Social interaction

Many people with autism prefer to spend time on their own and they might need a space at work where they can go to be alone.

People with autism can have trouble in understanding their own feelings and emotions, and recognising and understanding such feelings in others. This means they may appear insensitive and may struggle to express their own emotions, coming across as socially inappropriate.

Some examples:

  • Not asking if someone is okay if they are crying.
  • Standing too close or too far away from someone during a conversation.
  • Bringing up inappropriate topics of conversation.

Social imagination

People with ASD can find it hard to plan ahead. They also find it difficult to cope with change and many find relief in sticking to a routine.

Legal protection – more than a decade on, but it’s still not enough

The Autism Act 2009 remains the only law in England aimed at improving autism at work and services for people with one particular disability and is an acknowledgement that autistic people face specific problems in being understood and supported. Since 2009, England has come a long way: adult autism diagnosis services are now accessible in almost every area of England and there are specific commissioners on autism in almost every council.

Employees with ASD are also protected under the Equality Act 2010. This means that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to enable a person with autism to undertake their job role.

Neurodiversity in the workplace – what can you do?

People with ASD can be extremely reliable employees, they possess:

  • good attention to detail.
  • high levels of concentration.
  • strong research skills.

With an increased awareness of what autism is, how individuals with autism can best be managed, and the reasonable cultural and physical adjustments that may be required, more people with autism could find and/or stay in work. We all have a part to play.

The support required will naturally depend on the person, the organisation and their job role but the tips below can be extremely useful.

9 tips for HR professionals to embrace neurodiverse staff and manage autism at work

1. Provide clear expectations. 

You can do this by:

  • Being more explicit about expectations of the role.
  • Making job descriptions very clear.
  • Explaining the etiquette and unwritten rules of the workplace.
  • Clarifying adaptations made in the work environment to help them integrate and thrive.

2. Rethink the interview process.

You can do this this by:

  • Focusing on skills-based hiring.
  • Share a sample of questions in advance.
  • Accommodating for different needs.

Training in Recruitment and Selection can help your managers and hiring teams to become better aware of the challenges facing different groups of people in the recruitment process, and what they can do to help and ultimately find the best candidate.

3. Provide training and monitoring.

Support should continue beyond the recruitment process and your employees must feel guided along the way. Training and monitoring can be provided more formally or informally on the job, by a manager, by colleagues or a mentor.

Talent Management training can help you manage and support your teams.

4. Make sure onboarding instructions are clear, concise and specific.

You can do this by:

  • Avoiding corporate jargon and acronyms.
  • Giving clear instructions right from the start about exactly how to carry out each task, from start to finish.
  • Asking the person to repeat back instructions so you are sure they have understood.

For further help and guidance, head over to our Policy Design and Strategy Support services to improve your policies and procedures towards aspects including autism at work.

5. Ensure the work environment is well-structured.

You can do this by:

  • Working with your neurodiverse staff to prioritise activities, organising tasks into a timetable for daily, weekly and monthly activities, and breaking larger tasks into small steps.
  • Providing specific information about start and finish times.
  • Helping them getting into a routine with breaks and lunches.

6. Regularly review performance. 

This can be done by:

  • Having brief and frequent one-to-one meetings with the person to discuss and review performance.
  • Giving honest, precise, constructive and consistent feedback.
  • Explaining tactfully but clearly the areas for development and set out exactly what they should do instead.
  • Giving positive feedback wherever appropriate.

7. Provide reassurance in stressful situations and plan for changes.

This is likely part of your mission of building an Inclusive Culture. You can do this by:

  • Providing information about any changes to the workplace or tasks well in advance.
  • Giving concrete solutions to likely situations –e.g. by explaining “If the colour printer breaks, use the one on the red break out area on the second floor”.
  • Reassuring them that some situations are largely inevitable – e.g. if they arrive late due to transport delays or other factors, this is not a problem.
  • Creating a buddy system so they can access a compassionate colleague if they are feeling stressed, anxious or confused.

8. Ask about sensory distractions.

Sensory distractions can be prevented by taking appropriate measures, such as:

  • Placing screens around desks of autistic employees.
  • Providing noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Allocating corner desks and setting quiet rooms.

9. Raise awareness across the company about neurodiversity and autism at work.

You can do this by:

  • Providing colleagues with guidance on autism at work, if consent has been granted by autistic employees.
  • Consider staff training and/or online modules to increase understanding of how to manage employees with ASD.

4 tips for those working with individuals with autism

The 4 tips below greatly help the person with autism at work to follow what is being said or required of them.

  1. Don’t expect them to engage with workplace ‘banter’.
  2. Speak clearly and be consistent.
  3. Avoid any room for ambiguity in your instructions and interactions.
  4. Clearly explain any changes.

Over the next decade, an estimated half a million people with ASD will enter the UK workforce.

The conversation around autism has fortunately transformed greatly. Perspectives have shifted over the last century. However, the stigmas around these neurological differences do still exist and these suppress the full potential of such untapped talent. Until not so long ago, these abilities were misunderstood and were seen as disabilities. It is only now where organisations are waking up and seeing the huge benefits which a neurodiverse workforce contributes.

What next?

If you think that your organisation and neurodiverse employees would benefit from raising the awareness of autism at work, get in touch to see how we can work together. The EW Group has worked in building inclusive cultures for the past 27 years and offers training in Unconscious Bias, Inclusive Cultures, and Diversity and Inclusion – all of which combat workplace discrimination whilst increasing awareness in equality and inclusion. Get in touch with our specialist team to see how you can gain a fair advantage.

Samantha Hernandez is a leadership and diversity development consultant at EW Group. Sam has worked at a senior management level across industries such as Oil & Gas, Financial Services, FMCG and ICT, as well as major infrastructure programmes such as Crossrail and HS2. She speaks 6 languages and holds a master's degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Biopsychology.

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