Today is World Autism Awareness Day. The aim of today is not just to shine a light on autism and increase awareness, but crucially it’s about celebrating the skills and talents that people with autism have to offer. It’s also about shifting often rigid mind-sets from focusing on what people can’t do, to making the most of their strengths, and this is particularly key in the workplace.
This strengths-based philosophy is highlighted in this year’s theme for the day, Employment: The Autism Advantage. If someone has a key skill the organisation needs, why aren’t we grabbing them by both hands and making use of their talents? It’s estimated that 700,000 people in the UK may have autism, around 1 in 100 of the population. With such high numbers, are employers missing out on key talent by not creating an autism-friendly workplace?
To find out more I spoke to Emma Jones, Partnerships and Employment Training Coordinator at the National Autistic Society (NAS), a leading UK charity for people with Autism. They operate in a wide range of support roles, including working with employers to embed good autism practice. Through workplace training for managers, people with autism and their colleagues, NAS provides a centre of information and support for anyone encountering autism in their working life. Today they are encouraging people to #StandOutForAutism.
JM: What characteristics of autism are particularly obvious in the workplace?
EJ: There are three main areas of difficulty which all people with autism share and which are sometimes known as the 'triad of impairments'. They are difficulty with social communication, difficulty with social interaction, and difficulty in flexibility of thought, meaning that they may find it hard to manage change. These are all relevant to the workplace and employers and colleagues should be aware of them.
JM: If an employer hasn’t had direct experience of autism, is employing someone going to be a steep learning curve?
EJ: Not necessarily. Of course there are certain things you need to consider more carefully. But essentially what we promote at NAS is good people management, and many of the adjustments employers may need to make are the things we do anyway with any employee. For example, we talk about the benefits of playing to people’s strengths. If someone is especially good at something, why don’t we take the opportunity to make the most of their skills and emphasise that part of their role?
What happens in most jobs for someone without autism is that they shape their role over time, playing to their strengths. For someone with autism this is harder and often requires a manager to lead that discussion. Job-shaping therefore needs to happen in a more formal and structured way.
For example, we recommend managers have more regular catch-ups with employees with autism; perhaps weekly or fortnightly. These meetings are useful to plan the weekly workload, and identify and discuss any problems as they arise. We also recommend employers consider feedback differently – if you have autism, identifying where a problem is and how to change it may be hard, but providing direct feedback makes it easier to work differently. We therefore recommend performance reviews or appraisals every 2 months rather than annually, as it can be hard to self-reflect over a year. Instead, with 2 month reviews you can set clear objectives and have something more tangible to reflect on at the end of each shorter period.
JM: Are we not isolating people with autism by managing them differently?
EJ: In reality we all get managed differently, and a good manager will adapt their style to the needs of each of their employees. Some people pick up subtle feedback and others require more direct feedback. Ultimately we want to help people perform at their best and management style needs to flex to achieve this, whether or not autism is the reason. If employees feel they are being treated unfairly in terms of manager attention, you can explain to colleagues that there is good reason if someone is managed differently.
JM: Is a lack of understanding holding employers back from making the most of people’s skills?
EJ: It can mean that employers don’t have the confidence to help people with autism perform at their best. They may be worried about getting it wrong, so instead don’t do anything at all. What we find at NAS is that difficulties arise when needs aren’t responded to early enough and a problem is left to grow. Addressing a problem early, mainly through having a conversation and making small adjustments in the way people are managed, nips a misunderstanding in the bud.
A key message we want to give employers is that the Equality Act isn’t about treating everyone the same – it’s about creating equal opportunities, which might mean you need to treat people differently. A common example is that we are often worried about giving people step-by-step instructions about how to do something for fear of being patronising. But actually a person with autism may need that extra detail and guidance to avoid confusion about what they need to do and the expectations of them in their role. Providing a detailed day structure can be really helpful, as can talking openly and directly about workplace etiquette and culture.
JM: There’s lots of research which says social interaction can be particularly challenging for someone with autism. Is this a reality or a stereotype?
EJ: The most important thing for employers to remember is that autism is on a spectrum and everyone’s needs and strengths will be different. We need to treat people as individuals and make the effort to find out about them as a person.
Miscommunications are commonly experienced by people with autism and employers need to be mindful of this. What works really well is awareness training for colleagues, not just for line managers. Let’s take banter for example; it may be necessary to make colleagues aware that someone with autism can find this difficult. Having autism can make it difficult to pick up on the nuances and what’s acceptable in different situations, including understanding that the kind of banter that works in the office is very different from the kind of banter you have down the pub.
But it’s so simple to overcome those kind of things – tackle the issue head-on, be direct, and explain the logic behind why you can’t do something and how someone could do something differently next time.
Overall, what I would say is that the feedback we get from the forward-thinking employers who adapt their people strategies to enlarge their talent pools and be an autism-friendly employer, is very positive.
For more information on The National Autistic Society, visit www.autism.org.uk. Or join Network Autism, a free and accessible social media platform for further help and guidance – network.autism.org.uk.
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I think it's great we're starting this conversation, and I wonder if another thread to consider is the design of workplaces? The open-plan, hot-desking workspaces designed to create a "buzz" work well for some people, but may pose a challenge to individuals on the autistic spectrum, among others.
15 Apr, 2015 09:28
Isn't it time the politicians addressed the Issue of Autism? Under the Equality Act the Public Sector have a special Public Sector Duty to go out to the population and Educate it. In the last 6 years we have had an Autism Act but in Cambridge they will not diagnose teenagers and even if you get a diagnosis as an adult there is no help or support. Indeed for Asperger Syndrome a point blank refusal to provide any in Cambridge. If we don't have educated doctors how can we get an educated society? If the people with autism cannot get any help and support to understand their condition and how it affects them then how can they communicate that to an employer. What right do the public sector have in deigning a community, health and social care to aid into the employment environment?
15 Apr, 2015 11:14
Just found out about EHC plans but wasn't actually told anything about them; just stumbled upon them when calling the National Autism Society. We are applying for one for my 18 year old son who we do want to get the support he needs so he can make the step to move into employment. It feels like a big step to get him there and when we do it feels like the job market isn't particularly open to people with ASD. I understand that many support agencies are holding their braethe to see who is elected to the next Governement as that will have a massive impact on how people with ASD are treated.
16 Apr, 2015 10:22
While I am late coming into this conversation I do not think many HR professionals are doing enough to employ people on the autism spectrum. I have been working with my stepson to get him a job for the last three years and all he gets if rejection and at best a zero hours contract, with no regular work, is that the way to treat people with special needs and where is HR in allowing this? I do believe that HR professionals across the UK, can leave a legacy by employing at least 1 person with autism. HR must persuade management that its not all about performance but its about our collective and individual social responsibility. So HR professionals stand up for those with autism..................please.
14 Jul, 2015 07:18
great article.Am taking the strengths based view of autism and researching what line managers say about AS employees. Pleased to report that its mostly very positive!
15 Apr, 2016 12:18
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