Disclaimer: I am well aware that people with autism might have different needs, skills sets and so on. If you want to “educate” me on this, then by all means… don’t. I can’t possibly cover all possible angles and shades of blue in this blog post, and neither should you expect me to. Let this be the general disclaimer that I acknowledge that there are exceptions, varying degrees of X and so on just once and get over with it.
Normally, someone would open a blog post like this by saying that they want to “educate people”, or that “many people asked them to talk about this topic.” But I don’t feel the need to lie, I am writing this post so my robot brain can move on to the next itch it wants to scratch.
Unemployment is high under people with autism for many reasons. Because of this, people want them to believe that they should be grateful for having a job and just accept all the parts that suck. That is why there isn’t a lot of advice out there for people who are employing people with autism in the “normal” business spectrum. I sure hope that people who build companies to exclusively hire neurodivergent people and boast about it on LinkedIn know how to create an environment where their employees are comfortable in their monotonous stereotypical jobs, so this post isn’t for them.
If, however, you run a business and have hired or are planning to hire people on the autism spectrum, this blog post might be of use to you. In it I’m going to share some things you might want to know when it comes to employees with autism. Please note that this is all written from my perspective and the best way to find out what the needs of an employee of yours is, is to sit down with them and ask them.
There is no specific order in the suggestions below, because no matter how I tried I couldn’t order them in a coherent fashion. So here goes nothing.
The classics, light and sound
People with autism being sensitive to things like light and sound are classics for a reason. Sensory issues are very common in people with autism. You can’t help the fact that they can only wear one type of sweater, of course, but there are some considerations to make for your employees with autism.
Many people with autism struggle with “sounds” around them. They have difficulties to block them out and focus. As you can imagine, that makes the office a challenging environment for them to do what you’re hiring them for – doing their job.
You can tackle this problem by creating a calm space for them to work in. That may translate into their own (small) office or at least an area where they’re not surrounded by tons of other people. Open floor plans suck. So does flexible plans where everyone just sits wherever, for an entirely different reason. So ideally, you’ll avoid both and give them a fixed, calm space to work in.
On top of that, there’s the issue of phones. Phones? Yes, phones. You probably don’t know this but autistic people and phones aren’t friends. There’s plenty of them with varying degrees of the spectrum whose skin crawls when the phone starts ringing. They are shrieking devices from hell, and if possible you should consider allowing them to unplug theirs. Doubly so because – bonus tip – autistic people will have a hard time retaining most things you tell them over the phone anyway.
Often a calm place might not be quiet enough. That’s why you should consider allowing them to wear headphones during work. I don’t know why, but this seems to be taboo at some companies. Is it because it makes someone less approachable? Is it because it’s “not professional?” Because let me assure you, some people with autism actually don’t want to be approached out of the blue and would consider that to be a win.
As an added bonus, listening to music or something else might help your employee to focus on their job. For some it drowns out the background noise in their mind, helping them to do their work better. So that’s a double win for you as an employer. People just need to get over themselves if they feel that wearing “headsets is rude” and accept that people with autism might be startled or “bothered” regardless if they were wearing one or not when you’re approaching them.
As far as light goes, I don’t have as much advice. I’ve yet to work in an office with lights that triggered my autistic “What the hell is this?” response, but the experience could be different for your employees.
Some people with autism also struggle with their other senses. I’m not sure to what degree other types of issues could be accommodated. But if, for example, your autistic employee complains that their uniform is distracting them, you’d better believe that it’s actually throwing them off and keeping them from working as hard as they can.
Where do they go with their questions?
A question about questions? Oh, I went there.
I don’t know how to introduce this one, other than by stating the obvious. Your employee will have questions about his job. For people with autism, this could be a problem if they don’t know who they can ask these questions. Some managers think that their company is an open book and that it’s very obvious who you should be asking what question. Guess what managers? It’s not.
People with autism might already feel like a “burden” for simply having a question. A quest to have to find out who they should be asking will only fuel their anxiety.
That’s why it’s a good idea to have a dedicated “contact” for these employees. A person they can direct their questions to, who either points them in the right direction or finds the answer for them. And no, telling people “You can approach me about anything” doesn’t suffice. People with autism will be hesitant to approach their boss with their questions. They understand that they’re busy people and don’t want to be a bother.
On top of that, it’s important to pay attention how you (and other people) respond to questions. If your replies give them the feeling that they can’t approach you, they might never want to approach you again – even if they want to ask where the fire extinguisher is because your building seems to be on fire. After all, you made it pretty clear that you don’t have time to answer their questions. So why would this be an exception? Maybe you’ll notice the fire on your own, eventually?
I realize that this “don’t be a dick” advice can be applied in general, but it’s generally true for people with autism. They perceive these sort of things differently and are more likely to misunderstand “Not now!” as “Never!”
To add to that, there are no stupid questions. If someone has a question that might sound trivial or “too simple”, you should know that they still really want to know the answer. Otherwise they wouldn’t have found the courage to approach you to begin with.
“It doesn’t matter” isn’t a proper answer. The person with autism might be struggling to make a decision – as minor as it might be – and hope you can break the deadlock for them. In fact, they might not be able to move on with their day unless their question is answered, because they feel like their process “hung” at the question they asked you.
“Just ask someone” culture sucks
I hate “just ask someone” culture with a passion. In case you don’t know what this is, let me try to explain. It’s when at a company, every time you ask how something is done, you are being told to “just ask someone”. There are no procedures or instructions written down. Everything is stored in the collective hivemind of your colleagues – and finding the right one is the first part in a non-written procedure of misery.
People with autism need structure in their life and job to thrive. Because of this, they often excel in jobs with strong procedures. Otherwise, they might experience problems with the right order of steps to do something, how to do something, or who they should contact about something.
The allergy of companies to strong, written procedures is baffling when you consider that they are a great tool. They can help new employees or anyone who needs to temporarily fill in a job alike. And yet “documenting everything” is an alien concept to smaller companies who feel they shouldn’t invest their time in doing so.
Written procedures are the superior choice, for obvious reasons:
- They can always be consulted when needed
- There is no risk that auditory processing (processing what someone hears) makes the person with autism lose 90% of what you explained
- They can be updated at any given time,
- They (can be) interactive
- They’re never “too busy” to answer.
- They are reusable for all of your employees.
Given how important structure is for people employees, written procedures and instructions are an excellent tool to guide them. But this goes for companies in general. If something needs to be done more than once by even a single person, it is probably worth documenting these steps for future reference. If you’re “too busy to waste your time on that”, maybe it’s because your culture of just winging it is costing you valuable time.
Face to face meetings
“Hahaha, meetings suck am the worst, am I right?”
They are, but for people with autism they’re a special kind of hell. They’re a combination of things many of them are terrible at. On the one hand, you have the multi-person conversation where the autistic person will struggle to follow what’s going on. They will also have a hard time speaking up if they need to. And their auditory processing issues might lead to them walking away from the meeting with…nothing. Just more anxiety.
So here are some tips to make meetings less painful for people with autism. Maybe they’re useful for other people, too. I’m not neurotypical, even though we both obviously hate meetings so that “means I must be neurotypical to, hehehe”.
Schedule the meeting far enough in advance, and try to define the topic of the meeting. People in general like to get a heads up about a meeting, but people with autism need some extra time to process the fact that they’re going to be sitting in a room with a bunch of dudes who they’re supposed to listen to.
Setting the topic can help them create an idea of what you’re going to expect. Additionally, if you are expecting them to give input during the meeting it would be a good idea to give them a heads up. Be it to ask their opinion or something, or to report on something, there is nothing more panic inducing than being called upon on a meeting out of the blue.
At the end of the meeting, you might want to have someone send a summary to your autistic employee of what you are expecting of them. They might be taking notes or pretending to be taking notes, but there is a chance that they are stepping away from that meeting remembering nothing at all. Hell, these sort of follow up mails should probably standard for anyone to receive after a meeting.
Help them schedule work
Little known fact: Although they require structures and schedules to function, autistic people can be terrible at scheduling their work. Part of their autism diagnosis can make this difficult to impossible for them. That’s why it’s a good idea to help them schedule their work. Just throwing a bunch of things they should be doing often isn’t enough. And not even writing a to-do list for them might even be enough.
The problem often isn’t that they don’t know what they have to do. They don’t know what to do next, and they can “freeze” in that state while time passes. They can struggle with prioritizing work even if it might be obvious to other people what needs to happen next.
They might struggle with figuring out what is important, what is urgent and what has to happen in what order. Sometimes, in rare cases, even when they know these things, they’ll still struggle to figure out what to work on. It might be a good idea to help them and explicitely tell them what to work on and in what order.
To achieve this, you could borrow from “Agile” development techniques. Without going into details, the idea is that users are assigned a block of work or a task to work on during a week. If one is complete, they can move on to the next.
You could apply this to your autistic employees as well, by helping them break down the work in “blocks” which have clear starts and ends. That way, they’ll first get to work on “Task A” until completion after which they can move on to “Task B”. This will help them, because the amount of work they “should be working on” is significantly reduced to one big ticket that requires their attention for the next period.
This leads me to the next suggestion. Be very clear in your communication.
Be clear and specific when communicating
When you are communicating with people with autism, it’s extremely important to be very clear and specific. This is important both when talking to them or in written communication. You will want to clearly define what you want from them, how you want it done, what the deadline is… The less you leave up to the interpretation of the person with autism, the better the end result will be for you.
People often struggle with this, I’ve noticed. They will write mails that are either too short and not helpful, or that are too long and write paragraphs that leave the recipient wondering “Okay, cool, but what do I need to do right now?”
If you are giving someone instructions, it will almost always be better to do this in writing. When talking to you face to face, the autistic person might be using more brain power than you’d think on just “trying to have a conversation”, so your instructions might be lost on them completely – or just enough to the point that they’ll have to mail you to ask to clarify anyway.
There are more tips I could give, but I have a feeling that this post has already broken the “amount of words to number of words people will read” barrier, so I’m going to move on to the last tip, and that’s to talk to them like they’re adults.
Talk to them like adults
This one might seem odd, mostly because people don’t realize they’re doing “it”. “It” being changing their demeanor and the way they talk to a person with autism in a way that is condescending, whether that was their intention or not.
People often seem to have the feeling that they need to dumb things down or speak differently to adults with autism, and it’s annoying. We might not be socially geniuses, but we notice, and it’s annoying and frustrating. It’s safe to assume that when someone holds a job, they can also be talked to like any other adult and that they will understand you just fine.
Yes, you might need to explain things a little bit better. And yes, it might be a good idea to check if they’re in the right mental place to listen. But once those hurdles are passed, we liked to be talked to like you would to any other person. Our language skills are just as good as those of neurotypicals in many cases, and a lot of us are surprisingly decent at holding a conversation if the need arises.
When employing a person with autism, there are some challenges you might not be aware off. I hope this post helps you to understand both these challenges and things you can do to make their work life easier and more productive. This will lead to a win-win situation for your employee and co-worker. After all, autistic people can be great employees – if you give them the chance to excel.