People with autism face many barriers to gaining meaningful employment that makes use of their unique skill sets: application and interview practices that heavily favor neurotypical workers, overstimulating working environments, and negative stereotypes and stigma surrounding individuals with autism. One of the major stereotypes that many people have about individuals with ASD is that they find all social situations impossible to handle and this will make having them in the workplace too challenging to make switching to an autism friendly working environment worthwhile.
Fortunately, as with most stereotypes, this is a major misconception. There is an old adage that’s worth remembering: “once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. While it’s true that there are some common traits and characteristics that affect different groups of people with autism, it’s called a spectrum for a reason. Autism can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways, and no two people on the autism spectrum will present in the same way. This especially applies to social interactions, so the number one tip for interacting with individuals with autism in the workplace is to really get to know them and their communication preferences. Some other useful tips that may help in different situations with different individuals include:
- Use words, not facial expressions – individuals with autism often have a very frank and disarming way of communicating and in the workplace this can come across as rude or abrupt. Most neurotypical colleagues will rely on facial expressions to subtly suggest that they didn’t like how the speaker put across their idea, but for many people with ASD, these facial expressions are really hard to read and understand. All employees should be encouraged to calmly and kindly explain how the speaker came across to them and perhaps guide them to a better way to put their point across. Not only does this respect everyone’s dignity, but it makes for a more positive working atmosphere all round.
- Keep it concrete – along with facial expressions, many people with autism are very literal, which means that abstract language can lead to confusion. While they will have worked hard to learn the social pragmatics surrounding linguistics conventions like metaphors, idioms and sarcasm, the workplace can be full of these which can cause miscommunications. Again, all employees should work towards using more concrete language and keeping their ideas simple and concise when interacting with colleagues with autism. An unexpected consequence of this is that many organizations find that interpersonal relationships improve and office gossip decreases as there’s less opportunity for rumors and misunderstandings to fester.
- Ignore self-regulating behaviors – another common trait among many employees with autism are using patterns of behaviors to help them regulate their own emotional states. To an outsider, these may look out of place in the workplace, but they serve a function of helping the individual to cope with the sensory inputs of being at work. While they can feel distracting during a meeting or conversation, all staff should be taught to ignore these “stims” and to think about them in the same light as socially acceptable mannerisms like pen tapping or hair twirling.
- Work with them, not for them – the temptation for anyone with a disability in the workplace is for their colleagues to do things for them that they think are “beyond” the individual. However, employees with autism will be in the workplace on their own merits, and it should be left to them and their supervisor to work out what tasks and responsibilities they are capable of completing independently. Above all, a colleague with autism is looking for acceptance and collaboration just like all other workers, and the best support that their teammates can provide is work with them and avoid doing things for them.
The key theme that runs through all of these tips for interacting with individuals with autism in the workplace is to allow them to be different and accept these differences. Employees on the autism spectrum will have spent most of their life knowing that the way that their brain and body works is not typical, so colleagues can make the workplace more autism friendly employers by accepting these differences and treating them as typical and normal.