An Employee with Autism in the Workplace

In today’s world, individuals with autism spectrum disorder have a variety of exceptional skills that enable them in order to thrive in roles. These roles are changing from for example sales assistant to computer programmer and journalist to a statistician, depends on the severity of the disorder. Each has individual requirements for assistance with job placement, individual capabilities, special talents, and a unique perspective to contribute to the workplace. 

Every individual with autism has a special area of interest. The job that they want to work must appeal to these interests, strengths, and talents. Take the time to get to know the person, understand his/her interests and discover how they can be utilized in a job setting. If a position involves activities that fall outside their interests, individuals with autism will have little or no motivation to perform these tasks.

Nevertheless, due to the fact that core symptoms of autism which are difficulties with social communication and interaction, other people’s lack of understanding, and sensory issues, those workers often have disadvantages in case of having a job. It is a hard task for them to get and keep a job. So, we can say that employees with autism may need some support within the workplace.

Difficulties experienced by people with autism that affect their employment opportunities:

•    Having difficulties communicating with other people around them

•    Having difficulties coping with change

•    A need for routine and rituals

•    Having difficulties with social interaction

•    Having difficulties with time management

•    Having difficulties focusing on relevant information

•    Issues which are arising from stress and anxiety

“He already worked in my team as a Customer Sales Assistant when I became his line manager in 2002. I had no previous experience of working with people with an autism spectrum disorder, so I did some reading around the subject. He is excellent with customers and has amazing interpersonal skills. In the time when I have worked with him, we have not really had any particular challenges to overcome, mainly because prospects have shown us how to prevent any difficulties from arising in the first place. But it is good to know that they are always there to provide back up if we need it. I feel I am very fortunate to have someone like him in my team.” said one of the managers working with an individual with autism.

Working with someone on the spectrum can be an enriching experience for managers and other colleagues. However, it is also very challenging for everyone within the workplace. Of course, in order to ensure an enjoyable and effective workplace, there are some tips on how to avoid or overcome any difficulties and challenges.

There are positive aspects of working with someone with autism:

•    They may have an amazing memory for facts.

•    They may have a special talent or skill.

•    They may have savant abilities.

•    Most of them have positive character traits such as honesty, punctuality, loyalty, reliability, perfectionism, and single-mindedness.

Character Traits People with Autism Have to Affect Them Within the Workplace

If you have someone with autism within the workplace, it mostly means that that person has a high functioning form of autism which is Asperger Syndrome. Because a more severe form of autism do not allow them to work. So, besides those positive aspects, there are social, physical, cognitive and work characteristics of an individual with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism to help them to work.

While most normally developed people will identify with many of these characteristics at some point in their lives, individuals with autism may experience these traits continuously with many of them appearing simultaneously. Also, when they experience them, it is far more intense. On the other hand, it should be remembered that a person with autism will not display all of these characteristics, nor will they display them all of the time.

• They may have difficulty presenting criticism without looking insensitive. Therefore, it should be properly explained that they are not actually insensitive and produce alternatives.

• They may have difficulty accepting criticism. Therefore, being sensitive to self-esteem should be a priority at work. This can be considered by other employees as an opportunity for learning. Discussions should be ended in a positive way. Clear, practical and accessible tasks should be given to work on the discussion.

•    Unwritten social rules can be very challenging for them in terms of perceiving and applying. So, there may be a need for social skill training.

•    They may immature manners to not allow them to work appropriately.

•    Even in their older ages, they are like a child in terms of naïve trusts in others whoever familiar or not. Other people in the workplace should be aware this trait can lead individuals with autism into distressing or dangerous situations.

•    Social and communication difficulties are the main symptoms of autism. They often lead to withdrawal and isolation. And, they lead to be shy. So, individuals with autism should be encouraged in order to observe other employees in the workplace and learn from them.

• They have little or no participation in a group conversation. During the conversation, others do not be too concerned about or forced the person if there is no contribution. Because of the fact that many of those with autism prefer one-to-one conversations if they want to talk even it is a rare situation as well. On the other hand, if that person wants to join, he/she is probably interested in the conversation but unsure how or when to join in. Perhaps a structured question can be asked in order to include the person in the conversation instead of open-ended questions.

•    Most people with autism have constant anxiety about performance and acceptance. Praise and comments should be meaningful. Instead of hearing something general, they want to hear something related to their traits or jobs specifically.

•    They have extreme honesty like a 5-year-old child. They never lie. They often express in an inappropriate manner. A more appropriate comment should be suggested in a tactful way.

•    Individuals with autism do not want to talk about their emotions in a direct way or they may experience and describe their emotions in a different manner.

•    Because of the lack of social communication, they seem to have little or no sense of humor. They have a bizarre sense of humor. Most of those with autism do not get humor that relies on understanding inference or how others think. They might prefer word-play or slapstick humor.

•    Their lack of social understanding leads them to have difficulties in reciprocating greetings and pleasantries. They can be encouraged to observe others around them and to take social cues from them.

•    Lack of empathy is one of the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. It means they have difficulties expressing empathy for others. A lack of empathy may be off-putting to a person who does not know them. When there is an afford to build a relationship with someone with autism, it should be kept in mind that it takes longer compared to normally developed people. Because the person may not be sure how to express their empathy to others in an appropriate way.

•    As a result of a lack of empathy and being excessive honest, they express likes and dislikes in a very strong way. Everyone has likes and dislikes, however, people with autism tend to express more intensely.

• People with autism such as rituals and routines. So they adhere strictly to the rules where flexibility is desired. While this is quite difficult, it is helpful when learning the rules that those with autism learn that some rules should not always be followed, in some cases some rules may be broken, and some rules are flexible. It may be helpful to write some of these rules for reference.

•    Lack of social abilities and expressed their emotions lead them to be serious all the time. They mostly do not smile. They are pokerfaced. They may not recognize jokes or sarcasm. They may take things literally. In those kinds of situations, single-mindedness can be an advantage if channeled in the right direction.

•    As a result of experiencing these difficulties, they may have flash temper or tantrums. However, it is not a big issue because it can be suggested them to go for a walk to calm down or they may have other self-shooting methods to calm themselves.

•    Even though individuals with autism are lack of social skills, they can talk excessively about their interests. It is also considered as a calming strategy.

• Due to the lack of social communication, they may have major problems with privacy. If you are working with an individual with autism, you should be prepared for personal questions that they will ask you. When asking you many questions, they avoid answering when you ask questions about their life. They do not give much detail about their own lives. When asked inappropriate questions, they may be warned politely and not to ask again.

•    They have difficulty judging others’ personal space and can be stood so close to others. The need to respect personal space should be reminded in a tactful way. While doing that, concrete points of reference may use such as arm’s length.

•    People with autism are insisted on sameness and routines. So, they have limited clothing preference mostly. However, these preferences may not be suited for work at all, conversely, they may prefer to wear a uniform day after day for sameness and have difficulties on ‘casual days’.

•    Many individuals with autism are aware of their differences. But it doesnt mean that they know how to handle it. Even though they seem to be in their own world, the only thing they want, for example in workplace, to be accepted by colleagues.

•    They have difficulties in group works. The person with autism may need defined tasks, roles or guidance within the team. They may actually be very good at team leader roles directing others or at documenting the team’s progress or outcomes.

•    Because of their social communication, they avoid socializing with other employees on or off the job. Many individuals with autism find it difficult to interact and relate to others socially. They perceive small talk is pointless and painful.

•    As a result of the characteristics of autism, they are mostly punctual and conscientious people. Taking sick days and day-offs are not their things. Overtime is completely fine with them. If the person with autism is late or having difficulties getting to work, which means there is a sever problem he or she has. In this case, try to be helpful as much as possible.

•    People with autism may have difficulties in handling relationships with authority figures. Some of them find it hard to respect people in authority that they feel are less intelligent or less knowledgeable about a subject than they are. On the other hand, some of them may want to be in a position of authority but lack the social skills and confidence needed to take on the role.

•    They have a low level of assertiveness. There should be time for regular feedback sessions in order to discuss problems. Managers should support the person with autism to speak up for themselves when they need to.

•    They may not be aware of risks in the work environment to themselves or others. You can help them make connections between causes and effects. Any hazards should be explained explicitly in the workplace by using signs or other visual cues.

•    Individuals with autism tend to lose it when they perceive the situation contradictory or confusing. So, managers should control them in order to understand they understand everything correctly. The important point is information should be as simple as possible. It should be kept in mind that people with autism need to take a much longer time to process verbal information.

•    Starting a new task could be challenging for them. So, tasks can be broken down into well-defined and more basic steps. While doing this, physical or verbal cues can be used as a prompt.

•    Position or basically work should involve tasks that appeal to their interests. There should be little motivation to perform tasks outside personal interest. Because of the fact that they are likely to forget tasks without reminders, use lists or visual schedules as a reminder.

•    People with ASD find it difficult to focus on what is relevant and essential because they are concerned with order and appearance of the work environment. They can easily distract. So, a tidy work area helps them focus.

•    All the people with autism tend to be a perfectionist and they want to be everything perfect. Nevertheless, managers and coworkers remind them that not everything has to be 100% perfect all the time and it is mostly impossible within the workplace.

•    As a result of being punctual and strict about everything, they have difficulties with unstructured time. The unstructured time within the workplace may make the person on the autism spectrum feel lost or anxious, or they may start looking for something to do and disrupt others.

•    Due to being perfectionist, embarrassment or trying to hide difficulties, people on the spectrum are reluctant to ask for help. Managers should encourage them in order to ask for help or provide opportunities to ask for help in a time when there is no one as an audience.

•    They tend to question everything excessively. It can be a self-calming strategy for them. Answer the question but try to move the conversation on.

•    They may have stress, frustration, and anger in reaction to interruptions. Interruptions may be a distraction that results in the person having to start the task over again. So, a quiet area could be provided to a person on the spectrum. Also, let the person use music to concentrate on if the area is busy and distracting. Ask other workers to be respectful of the person’s need to work in peace, uninterrupted.

•    Due to the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder, they are vulnerable to harassment by others and bullying in the workplace. In this case, other workers within the worplace need education and training about what being respectful is. Harrasmment and bullying shouldnt be something to tolerate. And, it is the most important point if there is a person with autism working with.

•   Expectations and necessities of the job should be clarified more explicitly and in detail to them. Maybe, other employees can explain what unwritten rules are in the workplace. These approaches may make it clear everything for them and make the adaptation and transition easier.

•    Training and monitoring should be provided for employees with autism. Clear and structured training is more appropriate for them, obviously. This training can be provided informally or may more formal. While some workers or managers from wor environment can do it, there are some organizations offer coaches and funding for training.

•    Instructions shouldn’t be confused and should be to the point. Clear instructions are what they need. It should be kept in mind that do not assume the person with autism will infer the meaning from informal instruction, so be simple and clear. Also, managers may choose to provide written instructions. It can be even more beneficial and helpful because it gives a chance to repeat back instructions. So, managers and staff can be sure that a person with autism has understood.

•    The workplace should be well-structured. As we all know, individuals with people love order, stability, and routine. So, some of them need a fairly structured environment within the workplace. Activities can be prioritized. A timetable for daily, weekly and monthly activities can be organized. Larger tasks can be broken into small steps. Managers and other employees can help them by doing those steps.

•    Their performances could be reviewed regularly. Managers should have regular meetings with the employee with autism in order to discuss, review performance and give overall comments and suggestions, as with any employee. Brief and frequent reviews are better for a staff member with autism, instead of longer meetings at less frequent time periods. 

•    Feedbacks should be sensitive but direct. Even though it is hard to do all of them at the same time, feedback should be honest, sensitive, direct, constructive, and consistent. For example, when they make a mistake, instead of implying the problem, it should be explained how it supposed to be. People with autism may have low self-esteem, so criticism should be sensitive and feedback should be positive wherever appropriate.

•    Reassurance in stressful situations should be provided. It is very easy for them to be anxious. For example, if they think they are not good enough for the job. It means they may become very stressed in a failure situation. Other people within the workplace can help them to relax by giving concrete solutions.

•    It will be highly beneficial for everyone within the workplace if the employee on the spectrum has a mentor or buddy.

•    A staff member with autism will be supported in order to prepare for changes. Information about changes, which could be related to workplace or tasks, are given well in advance to them.

•    It can be asked what kind of sensory problems he/she has, because as we all know sensory problems are one of the main features of autism spectrum disorder. They may benefit from things such as screens around their desk, noise-canceling headphones, or their desk is in the corner.

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