How autistic people can thrive in the workplace

In the UK, only 29% of autistic people are in any form of employment, compared to around half of all disabled people. Although not every autistic person can work, nor should be working; there are many people who have a lot of potential and want to contribute to the workplace. Whether that’s through bringing a different way of thinking or (not always) having a high level of attention to detail, as being creative. So, with that in mind, here are some points that will show how supportive employers can enable autistic people to thrive in the workplace.

In the workplace there are a number of different barriers for autistic people, like understanding the workplace culture and expectations, getting caught out by workplace relationships or social expectations (including events out of the office), by failing to disclose that they are autistic, or by not doing so effectively. An overloading sensory environment can also lead to stress and burnout through someone becoming overwhelmed, while trying to maintain focus on their work.

So, as you can see, there are a lot of challenges. However, there are equally a lot of solutions in the form of reasonable adjustments that can be applied too. A key point to note here is that the responsibility isn’t just on autistic people to adapt, although adjustments from autistic people are needed to avoid clashes or misunderstandings with other people, such as being polite and using tact where they have the skills to do so.

For example, one thing that should be done is to make it easy for autistic people to disclose or declare their disability and what help they need. In the UK, autistic people, just like other disabled people, can disclose at any point, ideally when they are first applying for the job or actually doing the job. Some people may feel confident to disclose in a positive way, emphasising their skills and abilities, but others may lack confidence to disclose, for fear of being misunderstood or discriminated against whether directly or indirectly.

The key thing for employers to do, is to provide a warm welcome, such as, using precise language, which makes it clear that autistic people are welcome to apply for a job, or providing information on what reasonable adjustments they can offer for the job or the candidate. As for reasonable adjustments; these are often small adaptations, for example, to the working environment or to working routines that can enable autistic people to reach their full potential at work.

Employers often comment that adjustments are generally inexpensive and easy to implement. These can range from concrete adjustments, such as an autistic person having a specific fixed desk in an open office to avoid sensory overload and/or dealing with too much change; to having buddies or mentors that can help understand the formal and informal rules of the workplace, as well as how to operate within the boundaries and parameters of the workplace. Most importantly, autistic people should feel able to share a diagnosis, and beyond that, recognise they are infinitely different, with their own unique autism profile of skills, abilities and challenges. Adjustments need to be personalised to that individual, in that particular role. One size does not fit all. 

For instance, some autistic people might wear ear defenders due to their sensitivity to sound, whilst others may not experience this particular sensory difference. For their part, autistic people have the responsibility to make use of the adjustments made available to them in way that will help them do their job in a manner that enables them to reach their potential in work.

The National Autistic Society has plenty of information online, that can be useful to autistic people and their employers alike. For example, our free online ‘Finding employment module’ has a section on autistic people in work, as well as a workbook containing a template of a disclosure document that autistic people can fill in.

We also have a template for ‘Creating an autism profile’ that details the strengths, challenges, and how to work with an individual autistic person. This means that anyone working with an autistic person can have something relatively simple and easy to get.

Overall with the right amount of support, adjustments and acceptance for autistic people to be themselves in a professional context, then they won’t just cope in the workplace but thrive on their own terms. Whether that is as people who just do their jobs, people who do extraordinary things or people who are valuable pillars of their own local communities. The potential possibilities are endless.

About the Author

Leo Capella is an autistic employee at the National Autistic Society. Prior to re-joining the charity, he worked at Disability Rights UK on a campaign to create job opportunities for disabled people. Before going into the third sector he was a clerical assistant for the Environmental Health Department of Uttlesford District Council. Leo is a former Employee of the Year for the National Autistic Society and outside of work his hobbies include poetry, campaigning, writing and watching films, as well as manga and anime.

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