Neurodiversity in the workplace – 13 ways to support autism at work

Neurodiversity in the workplace

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.

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 and promote neurodiversity.

What is neurodiversity, and how can it and autism – a key condition to consider within the topic of neuro-inclusion – be promoted in workplaces?

What is neurodiversity in the workplace?

Neurodiversity describes the various ways the brain can function and process information. It comprises neurotypical brains – those that function in the way society expects them to – and neurodivergent brains, which work differently to the cognitive ‘norm’. One in seven of us has a neurodiverse condition.

Despite the fact many workplaces continue to largely cater for the cognitive “norm”, more organisations are realising that by making just slight changes every team member can reach their full potential.

Neurodiversity is a key asset to organisations as developmental conditions, such as autism, offer a vast assortment of perspectives and ways of thinking in business. Improved memory, lateral thinking and problem solving are many benefits neurodiverse employees can bring to organisations.

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 one 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 one in 100 people in the UK are currently living with autism, yet 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 encounter 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, therefore, seem 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.

Autism 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 working conditions 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 and autism 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 individual, their job role and the organisation, but the tips below can be extremely useful.

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

1. Provide clear expectations

  • Be more explicit about expectations of the role
  • Make job descriptions very clear
  • Explain the etiquette and unwritten rules of the workplace
  • Clarify the adaptations made in the work environment to help staff integrate and thrive

2. Rethink the interview process

  • Focus on skills-based hiring
  • Share a sample of questions in advance
  • Accommodate 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
  • Provide training and monitoring can be provided more formally or informally on the job, by a manager, by colleagues or a mentor

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

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

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

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

5. Ensure the work environment is well-structured

  • Work 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
  • Provide specific information about start and finish times
  • Help staff get into a routine with breaks and lunches

6. Regularly review performance

  • Have brief and frequent one-to-one meetings with the employee to discuss and review performance
  • Give honest, precise, constructive and consistent feedback
  • Explain tactfully but clearly any areas for development and set out exactly what they should do instead
  • Give positive feedback wherever appropriate

7. Provide reassurance in stressful situations and plan for changes

  • Provide information about any changes to the workplace or tasks well in advance
  • Give 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”
  • Reassure 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
  • Create a buddy system so they can access a compassionate colleague if they are feeling stressed, anxious or confused

This step is key for building an Inclusive Culture within your organisation.

8. Ask about sensory distractions

  • Place screens around the desks the desk of autistic employees
  • Provide noise-cancelling headphones
  • Allocate corner desks and setting quiet rooms

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

  • Provide colleagues with guidance on autism at work, such as Autism Awareness Day, as long as consent has been granted by autistic employees
  • Consider staff training and/or online modules to increase understanding of how to manage employees with ASD

Four tips for people working with autistic colleagues

If you work with a colleague who is autistic, consider the following four steps:

  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.

Fortunately, the conversation around autism has been transformed and perspectives have shifted greatly 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 that organisations are waking up and seeing the huge benefits that a neurodiverse workforce can contribute.

Promote neurodiversity in your workplace

If you think that your organisation would benefit from raising the awareness of autism at work, get in touch to explore how we can work together. The EW Group has worked for the past three decades to build more inclusive work cultures.

Perhaps conducting a Diversity Audit or Diagnostic would help you to better understand your employee demographics and if certain groups progress up through your organisation more readily than others. Or maybe training your employees, managers and leaders in the impact of Unconscious Bias and the business benefits of Diversity and Inclusion would be the best start to progressing your D&I agenda. Chat to our team about unlocking the best and most inclusive potential in your organisation.

Find out how we can help advance neurodiversity in your workplace.

Get in touch