5 things you need to know about Autism
People with Autism may have special skills or talents valuable in workplaces. They might be excellent with attention to detail, or great at sticking to routines and timetables. People with ASD are known to be loyal employees, likely to be punctual, reliable and hard working.
Autism (or Autism Spectrum Disorder – ASD), is a lifelong developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioural challenges for children and adults. People on the spectrum often communicate differently, although there may be nothing about the way they look that sets them apart. They may struggle with social interactions and have repetitive or rigid patterns of behaviour or interests. It’s important to remember that there is not just one type of Autism, but many.
Every person with ASD is an individual
There’s a saying that if you know one person with Autism, you know one person with Autism (credited to Dr Stephen Shore). “The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less,” says the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some people with ASD also live independently and lead normal lives, including at work. The charity Autism Speaks says that “because Autism is a spectrum disorder, each person has a distinct set of strengths and challenges.”
People with ASD may prefer written or clear instructions and may struggle with change
A written list is a useful aid for some people with ASD, while others might prefer short, clear instructions, or breaking down tasks into smaller components. Regular timetables or structure may help everyone, not just people on the spectrum.
When a routine or work process changes, people with ASD may need extra help. It’s beneficial to have a workplace mentor they can go to for support or questions. This might include ‘unwritten’ rules that others take for granted, or how to take part in office chitchat or workplace banter.
Communication may be a challenge
People with ASD often struggle with small talk or social etiquette. They may not realise if they’re talking too long or in too much detail about their special interest. Many people with ASD want to make friends and be liked by co-workers, but they may find it hard, especially if they have trouble reading social cues, facial expressions, body language or knowing when to speak or listen.
The website Autism.org.uk has some useful tips for people communications with someone on the spectrum, such as:
- using their name to get attention, making sure they’re listening
- speaking less or repeating key words, keeping questions short or offering choices (like ‘which option do you prefer?’)
- being aware of excess sensory input that may be distracting
- avoiding irony, sarcasm, figurative language, rhetorical questions or exaggeration.
If you’re an employer, you could hold an Autism Awareness training session to help other staff understand so everyone gets along.
You can help an ASD colleague or staff by…
- Learning about Autism and the differences that may show up at work – things like communication styles, difficulties with loud or distracting noises or lights, or using a stress ball to manage anxiety
- Getting to know them and welcoming them to the business (fostering a supportive workplace)
- Orienting them in the organisation (through an induction) and training them on their specific duties (explaining every procedure)
- Letting them know where to go for support
- Giving clear directions and feedback, including about time management and organisation skills.
The Autism employer guide suggests asking two vital questions, ‘what is your greatest strength?’, and ‘what tends to make you stressed or nervous?’. The guide also offers advice about helping people on the spectrum deal with change – let them know ahead of time and gradually incorporate small schedule modifications to prepare for larger shifts.
People on the spectrum make great employees
Research shows that there are business benefits to hiring neuro-diverse staff. This is sometimes described as diversity in thinking and innovation, and in thinking styles and abilities. “People on the spectrum often demonstrate trustworthiness, strong memories, reliability, adherence to rules and attention to detail. They are often good at coding – a skill in high demand,” says Training Industry website.
People with ASD may also have an intellectual learning disability too. Although almost half (44%) of children with ASD have an average or above average (savant) intellectual ability, most people with ASD range from having a profound intellectual disability to having learning difficulties or developmental delay. About a third have a very low IQ.
People with ASD also have high under or unemployment. In Australia, people on the spectrum – about one in 100 adults – have an unemployment rate of 31.6%, which is three times higher than others with disability and almost six times higher than people without disability.
“This is at least partially because many adults with ASD don’t make it through the interview process or may not even apply for a job because they think they won’t get hired,” says the Training Industry website. See What diversity brings to a workplace.
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