Autistic individuals can bring unique innovation and problem-solving skills to the workplace, so long as you set them up to succeed from the outset.
A study by the World Economic Forum looked at the skills employers believe will becoming increasingly important over the next five years. Critical thinking, innovation and problem-solving top the list. Skills that many autistic people have in abundance.
However, with just one in five autistic people currently in employment, traditional recruitment processes are still discriminating against people on the autism spectrum. Which now equates to 1 in every 100 people in the UK.
So, this month we look at five ways to boost your neurodiversity credentials and successfully hire and support people with autism.
Five ways to hire and support people with autism
1. Understand what autism means
Is an autistic individual someone with a lifelong disability or a different thinking style? The answer is both. Autism is a spectrum condition that develops in childhood. Individuals range from high-functioning, high IQ to non-verbal, or have extra support needs.
Autistic people are often stereotyped to gravitate towards roles in IT or Science, where their expertise and intense interest is celebrated and social skills less required, but their way of thinking can bring huge innovation and creativity to any sector. They think differently, see the world differently and can see patterns that others fail to spot. Their thinking is often the key to innovation, but people with autism can also have difficulties with social interaction, sensory overload and linguistic nuances.
Not all autistic people are high performing, but they can still bring real value. They have a great ability to focus and enjoy routine. If engaged on a task they enjoy, they can work very intensely and reliably. Autistic people frequently enjoy structured, process oriented, even repetitive tasks. Such as database management, call centre roles, structuring processes and stocktaking, which neurotypical people can struggle with, due to becoming distracted or bored.
2. Reconsider recruitment processes
An overemphasis on interpersonal skills during typical recruitment processes, regardless of whether or not they’re needed for the job, can often hinder autistic people.
For example, an interviewer might put a lot of focus on social interaction, such as the ability to maintain good eye contact. When, for someone with autism, this can be challenging. They might be able to do it, but it will generally make them feel uncomfortable. Similarly, if given an abstract scenario and asked situational judgement type questions, they can struggle. So it’s far better to ask them to perform a set task from the role itself.
By adapting recruitment processes, so they don’t work against autistic people, or other neurodevelopmental conditions, you can level the playing field. Simple things, such as allowing the person to submit a video of their response to questions, instead of taking part in a panel interview, can go a long way towards making it possible for people whose minds work in different ways to succeed.
3. Carry out workplace needs assessments
Many autistic people often try to hide their condition at the recruitment stage, for fear of not being recruited. They may have been successful academically at school or university but experienced negative consequences from being perceived as different and unsurprisingly do not wish to disclose. Others may manage well in other aspects of their day to day lives but encounter problems in the workplace.
This can lead to them ending up under performance measures, when upfront support can prevent this. To encourage more people to seek help from the outset. Make it clear that you are a neurodiversity employer that promotes and practices an inclusive culture. With ways of working and recruiting that make it possible for everyone to succeed.
We can offer a workplace needs assessment to identify and discuss what the individual needs to be effective and productive in their role as well as help to secure funding for this (see below). This will identify any adjustments that might need to be made, in terms of supporting technology, working conditions or coaching, co-coaching and awareness training.
4. Obtain Access to Work funding
There’s another reason for making individuals feel safe declaring themselves autistic at the recruitment stage. The earlier this happens, the greater the funding available from the government to help support autistic colleagues.
Access to Work is a government scheme, run by the Department of Work and Pensions, to fund, or partially fund, support in the workplace for people who need help, training or equipment to do their jobs, or even travel to work. It can be used to support people with neurodevelopmental conditions, including autism, dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia and ADHD.
The numerous employees we have helped to access this funding, currently capped at £62,900 a year per person, have said what a huge difference it’s made to their ability to perform. Plus, how much they wish they’d had this support in place sooner.
5. Train line managers and colleagues
Critical to retaining and bringing out the best in autistic employees, is coaching with the individual and their manager. This needs to be a two-way process, to help both parties to understand how to bring out the best in each other.
For example, if the neurodivergent employee needs a strong sense of routine and wants to take their lunch at 12.20pm every day, there is no point provoking anxiety by trying to vary this to 1pm without an exceptionally good reason. Which should be communicated in advance rather than impose a sudden change the same day. Similarly, if they do become anxious and use ‘stimming’ (self-stimulatory behaviour) – as repetitive movements to calm themselves – this should be seen as acceptable behaviour. Identifying a quiet space where they can be alone when feeling overwhelmed at work can also support autistic employees.
Similarly, if they struggle with nuances of language, their manager and colleagues can be coached to keep language simple and direct. This can be as simple as avoiding sarcasm or exaggeration, which can be taken literally. Plus, if the individual struggles with sensory overload or over-sensitivity to certain stimuli such as noise, light, touch or smells, the option to wear headphones to reduce noise, turning off bright lights above their desk or locating their desk away from the coffee area can all help. Adjustments which might seem unusual to others at first, but which can enable someone with autism to become one of your most hardworking and effective employees.
Nina Parson is director of psychology at ToHealth, the wellbeing and neurodiversity solutions provider.