The characteristics of autism include difficulty achieving social reciprocity, reading non-verbal communication and teamwork skills. This can lead to problems at work with social communication. Further difficulties can arise because autistic people tend to be primarily motivated to achieve work goals, for example, getting the job done to a high standard and finalizing the details, whereas typical people often focus to a greater extent on social goals, for example, relating to someone, being liked, receiving compliments, pleasing others etc. Both sets of goals are important and valid in a work setting, but these goals need to be balanced and appropriate for the work environment.
Problems can arise when an autistic person in the workplace does not realize their own role and contribution to social communication breakdowns, and when the work culture does not understand or embrace the characteristics and motivations of the autistic person. It is important at work to recognize that it takes two to make a social interaction successful and that successful social communication requires all participants in a social interaction to understand each other’s perspective, motivation, and social abilities. If you are autistic, or that person’s colleague or line manager, take a moment to consider any social communication difficulties at work. These are some potential social challenges.
What are the social challenges at work that autistic employees face?
It is important for an autistic employee to identify their social difficulties at work. They can do this from both their own perspective and from feedback from work performance interviews and comments from colleagues. Social challenges commonly experienced by autistic adults include:
- Being able to ask for help when needed
- Being able to offer strategies for repair of the interaction when communication breaks down
- Being able to assertively manage workplace bullying
- Understanding another person’s point of view or objectives
- Taking a literal interpretation when this was not intended
- Responding with conventional empathy
- Recognising personal space
- Knowing when to initiate and end a conversation
- Understanding office politics, interpersonal dynamics, and social hierarchy
- Recognising a ‘hidden agenda’ and someone intending to take credit for the autistic person’s work
Autistic employees may also find other people at work socially challenging when:
- They expect socialising beyond the capacity or endurance of the autistic person, e.g., more eye contact, social chit chat, talking about popular topics, self-disclosure etc.
- They do not seem to appreciate an honest answer and being corrected
- They interrupt the autistic person’s concentration
- They do not seek to understand the autistic person’s point of view
How to Manage Social Challenges at Work
Once the challenges are identified, the next stage is to create a social support network that may include a trusted colleague, appointed work mentor, line or HR manager, or family member to help see the social communication problem from another perspective and to suggest strategies to acquire specific social abilities.
It is important to decide what to tell each person in the support circle about any social communication difficulties depending on the person’s role in the circle, remembering that a person in the support circle can be invaluable in facilitating seeing the problem from another point of view, which then has good potential to lead to a solution.
Seeking support, advice, and knowledge
The first strategy is to seek support. It can be stressful and challenging to experience social challenges at work, and the support and understanding of others can relieve the stress of having to cope alone.
Members of the social support circle may also be able to provide guidance, advice, and knowledge. For example, it may help to acquire knowledge on social communication abilities such as learning how to improve the ability to read body language and being a member of a team.
Someone from the support circle may help identify the relevant social cues and context for a situation associated with social confusion or criticism. They may be able to see different perspectives and potential social communication breakdowns that can be repaired or avoided using their social advice. They are social mentors, and it is wise to seek their advice.
Another strategy is to acquire knowledge on social communication skills using the literature and Apps on reading body language. There is also literature on how to be a successful team member. It is not only autistic employees that benefit from improving social communication.
A member of the support team may be able to translate the perspective of the autistic employee to other team members. Autism is a case of double-theory of mind difficulty. Autistic employees may struggle to understand another’s person’s perspective, and equally the other person struggles to read and understand the autistic person. A translator who understands both perspectives can help.
Social scripts explaining autism
With an insight into problems with social communication and motivation to repair any problems, we have found that it is possible to use social scripts to manage a breakdown in social communication. Social scripts can be useful for most of the social communication difficulties associated with autism.
Consider the following questions based on potential difficulties in social situations, and with a social mentor, creating a script for each situation. It is important to consider how to communicate specific social communication difficulties to different people at work, for example, line manager or work colleagues. A social mentor may be able to provide some insight and advice.
Question 1: How could you communicate to your line manage that you prefer to be alone during lunch breaks and do not want to talk to your colleagues?
Potential script: To improve my work performance, I need to be refreshed by solitude during the lunch break. Socialising is not refreshing for me.
Question 2: How could you communicate to your colleagues that you sometimes interrupt others during their conversation, but you do not mean to be rude or disrespectful?
Potential script: Sometimes I annoy people by interrupting them. It is because I have difficulty recognising the ‘not now’ signals. Please give me a hand signal to wait until you are ready to listen to what I have to say.
It will be worthwhile creating and rehearsing the social script for a specific social situation. This can clarify the intention of the communication so that it is clear and succinct and to consider appropriate facial expressions, tone of voice and body posture. It is also important after using a social script to debrief with a social mentor.
Sometimes using a script does not have the desired effect, and the social communication problem continues, we highly recommend using someone in the social support circle to determine further strategies. Sometimes someone outside the problem may be able to help develop further self-insight or insight into the problem, as well as develop a new idea about what to do. In other cases, a mediation process at work may be helpful.
A core characteristic of autism is difficulties with social communication which can affect aspects of successful employment. It is important to identify the specific social challenges at work and to create a social support network. The social support network can provide support, knowledge, and advice. One member of the team may assist by serving as a translator between autistic and neurotypical cultures at work. With clarification of points of misunderstanding, scripts can be developed and rehearsed to avoid future misunderstandings.
Employment resources for autism
We have applied our extensive experience of autistic adults to create a seven-stage plan to facilitate successful employment in our new book:
Garnett, M.S. & Attwood, T. (2021). Autism Working: A Seven-Stage Plan to Thriving at Work. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. www.jkp.com
With our colleague Barb Cook, we have created a presentation on autism and employment available as an online course, with more information on our website. This webcast will include aspects of social communication and be of great interest to:
- HR Managers
- Line Managers
- Team Members
- Mentors and employment agency staff
- Autistic employees, and
- Autistic adults looking for and maintaining employment.
- Partner, parents, and carers of an autistic adult