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How to Create an Autism Friendly Work Environment

Fortunately, society is becoming more aware of the different thinking style that comes along with autism, and the many strengths and abilities that autistic employees bring to all industries and workplaces. Several progressive and innovative organisations are now headhunting autistic employees, being aware that employing a neuro diverse staff brings diversity of ideas, diversity of abilities, a healthy work culture and increased productivity and an edge in industry that leads to a better profit for the business. 

If you are an employer or manager of an autistic employee, you will be looking for the best strategies available to create an autism friendly work environment. In this article we describe what you need to know about your autistic employee, and the six best strategies to create an inclusive productive and energised neurodiverse work culture.

What to Know About Autistic Employees

Each autistic employee will be unique in their own way. This is because autism interacts with personality, intellect, verbal abilities, personal history and experience, and genes. However, there are clear commonalities that define autism.  Understanding what these are and how they play out in the workplace is crucial to being able to integrate and support autistic employees and create your inclusive culture.

Many autistic employees will be able to tell you what their strengths and challenges are. Sometimes they may not be able to tell you face-to-face or quickly, instead obtain this information in a written form or within a week. We recommend asking your autistic employee directly what their strengths are, what is challenging, and what solutions or accommodations at school, or in other environments, have supported them and been helpful. Some of their requests may surprise you, but as you adjust the workplace to suit your autistic employee, you will likely find that many other employees also will benefit from the adjustments. For example, one adjustment requested by an autistic woman was to her Manager recently, was that the radio could be turned off during work time. She was terrified to make this request because when she asked her colleagues, they had made fun of her. Once management put in place her request, other employees expressed relief that they did not have to listen to a noisy radio all day.

Common challenges experienced by autistic employees at work include:

  • A need for consistency and certainty
  • Attentional difficulties for topics that are not of natural interest
  • Difficulties with remembering complex spoken instructions 
  • A one-track mind
  • Fear of making a mistake
  • Slower processing time for social or auditory information
  • Difficulties describing their own thoughts and feelings
  • Problems with self-disclosure at work
  • Problems with office politics and incidental socialising
  • A different priority at work, i.e. being at work to work, not socialise
  • Difficulties conceptualising the perspectives of other people

While each of these characteristics can present challenges at work, it is important to note that the flipside of each is a positive for the workplace. 

Here is the flipside:

  • Enjoys routine, follows the rules and is reliable
  • Capacity for hyper focus for specific interest
  • Astonishing memory for facts, visual memory, and long-term memory
  • Persistence and tenacity in the face of a difficult task
  • Attention to detail and perfectionism
  • Being thoughtful within social interactions
  • Great capacity for describing complex patterns and systems
  • Strong work focus and ethic
  • Willingness and intellectual capacity to  learn another person’s perspective 

Armed with knowledge about the pros and cons of autistic characteristics at work you will be ready to understand and make accommodations for the individual, depending on their profile.

Six Steps to Creating an Autism Friendly Work Culture.

  1. Understand the unique profile of each autism employee in terms of their strengths and challenges. You may find our questionnaire useful. Here is the link. You can work through this questionnaire with your employee or ask them to complete it at home with someone who knows them well. Ask the person directly and allow time for a response. Sometimes the person may express their ideas better via an email sent later than with a verbal response at the time. Try to access information from previous workplaces, the home environment, or school if that was recent.

Make the analysis a positive one. Look for the strengths as well as the challenges. Whenever you look at the challenges, think about the flipside, but also solutions for the challenges at work.

  1. Educate direct line managers and staff who will be working with your autistic employee. Autism is a different way of thinking, learning, perceiving, sensing and relating. Without education your staff will not necessarily intuitively understand your autistic employee. Misunderstandings can create conflict and tension in the workplace. 
  1. Choose a support person. The best support person at work is likely to be naturally empathic, kind, forthright and open-minded. Be prepared to change your choice should your autistic employee find a natural chemistry with a different employee as a mentor. Autistic individuals thrive with support. They have often experienced a degree of rejection and criticism due to their differences and can be highly sensitive to failure and criticism. It may be useful to have two mentors, one for social information and one for the work itself.
  1. Be flexible. Listen to your autistic employee and be serious about what accommodations and flexibility options are possible. This may mean thinking outside the box. You will likely be asked for flexibility in workplace practice to accommodate a different sensory processing system, to identify triggers for anxiety and stress, organisational difficulties and social issues. An  example, is a request to eat lunch outside alone rather than in the lunch room with people. Another is flexibility of hours which is often highly valued by autistic employees as they may prefer starting work early or staying on late to benefit from a quieter workplace without the distraction of socializing.
  1. Check in often. It is unlikely that your autistic employee will come and tell you when things are not working. Ask direct questions, know their strengths, challenges, and accommodations. Check the accommodations are working and whether different approaches are needed. Over time work on developing a relationship that is based on true liking, respect, trust and admiration. Enjoy their personality and autistic characteristics. As one dear friend of an autistic employee said recently, after working with him for over 2 years, “In Autism it’s sort of like the brain is different, and the result is unexpectedly charming and helpful.”
  1. Remember that the slow way is the quick way in autism. Trying to hurry up the person or the process is likely to backfire. Taking time to understand, listen, and work through the solutions will provide a workplace that is a place to thrive, not only for the autistic person, but for the whole staff.

Next steps:

We have developed a program called “Autism Working – A  seven-stage plan to thriving at work” (Garnett & Attwood, 2022). As part of this program there are many tools to assist your autistic employee to thrive at work, as well as to educate you and your staff about autism.

Garnett, M.S. & Attwood, T. (2022). Autism Working: A Seven-Stage Plan to Thriving at Work. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

We also created an educational online course, Autism Working for employers and managers of autistic employees, their colleagues, and their support system, including their parents, carers and friends.