Beginner's Guide to Supporting Employees with Autism

Published January 14, 2021

If preparing to employ an employee on the autism spectrum seems like a daunting task, with some simple steps, you can help nurture employee success and satisfaction.

The employment process

The employment process is stressful for everyone, but it is especially so for people on the spectrum. Certain activities, such as interviews, judge people on their fluency in the language of "social skills." This language was created with solely non-autistic people’s communication style in mind. People on the spectrum may not be fluent in this language, meaning that the employment process can cause barriers to employment.

Luckily, you can make it easier by providing small, manageable alterations in the following areas.

1. Communication

  • The Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN) suggested that employers exclude interpersonal skills and other social skills-based abilities as job requirements unless those skills are absolutely necessary for the job.
  • If possible, forego the job interview and instead use alternatives to screen the potential employee, such as portfolios, job tryouts, or informal meetings, like tours, as the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) suggests.
  • If you must have an interview with the potential employee, let them choose the communication method of the interview, whether it’s through writing, video chatting, by phone, or in-person.
  • Keep in mind that interviews are a very high-level social challenge for people on and off the spectrum alike. Do not expect perfection from the interviewee.
  • The Autism @ Works Playbook (PDF) proposes that employers provide "structure to the interview makes the interviewee and interviewer more focused and more comfortable," and “make sure the candidate knows who is coming to the interview, what the process will be like, broad topics of what questions they will be asked, and assure them that there will be no surprise questions.”
  • The Playbook also noted that employers should use direct, literal language in interviews. They should ask one question at a time, "avoid double- barreled questions," and ensure that interviewees understand those questions or instructions.
  • If you are interviewing a prospective employee, you should limit the number of people in the room.

2. Sensory sensitivities

Interview potential employees in quiet, non-crowded spaces.

3. Personality assessments

While unintentional, personality assessments are discriminatory towards people on the autism spectrum. They filter out someone’s suitability for a job based on abilities, such as social skills, that people on the spectrum may struggle with because of their disability. Do not make applicants on the spectrum take these tests.

4. Create a custom position

Consider create a custom position based on the potential employee’s skills and interests, as the ICI suggests.

Promoting employee success

There are a number of strategies you can use to ensure that your employee is as productive and comfortable on the job as possible. In Transition to Adulthood: Guidelines for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (PDF), the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI) made the great point that these easy fixes should permanently stay in place so that workers can thrive at work.

1. Executive functioning

As OCALI noted, some people on the spectrum may benefit from supports in "organization, attention, and mental planning." They provided the following tips. While we have provided a quick summary of many of these tips, we recommend taking a look at this fantastic guide for a more detailed explanation.

  • Many people on the spectrum learn visually. Thus, OCALI suggested that employees use visual supports such as checklists (in pictures or words) of schedules, tasks, and items necessary for work. Maps of the work area, organizational apps, sticky notes, calendars, and work timelines could also be helpful.
  • ICI advised that job duties involve "structure, routine, and predictability" in which the details of what will occur in daily activities are laid out. This is because many people on the spectrum prefer stable routines.
  • EARN remarked that written, step-by-step task instructions can be useful. These instructions should be detailed, include the time blocks involved in each step, and include clear guidelines and priorities.
  • Employers should continually check in with the employee to ensure that the person’s work experience is going smoothly. They should continually review schedules and activities with employees. They also should let employees know in advance when changes to routines or personnel will occur and possibly support employees through these sudden transitions, according to the ICI.

2. Preparation for starting a new job

  • The ICI advised employers to learn what the employee’s best learning style and strategies are. For example, someone may be an auditory learner who could benefit from being told verbally what their task instructions are. This way, employers can learn which methods to use to teach skills and determine employee supports.
  • The organization also noted that assessments should be continually made to see which supports need to be applied or which skills should be taught. Assessments can also be used to test how well certain supports are working.
  • Employers should brainstorm how their employee’s work can be tailored towards their strengths, interests, and needs, according to the organization.
  • OCALI purported that employers should ask employees directly which supports they need, if possible. For example, employers should inquire whether the employee prefers individual or group work. If, and only if, the employer cannot ask the employee directly, the employer should ask the employee’s loved ones these questions. Then, employers can tailor the employee’s work towards those preferences.
  • Not everyone works most productively at the same hours as each other, so employees may benefit from having work times that are flexible, as EARN noted.
  • OCALI also tells employers to give new employees a mentor who can help them settle into their new responsibilities, environment, and the social aspects of their job.

3. Communication

  • ICI suggested that employers ensure the employee’s job activities are compatible with the employee’s communication style.
  • The organization also suggested that employers set up their employee’s job based on how much the employee wishes to be in social contact with other people. For example, if an employee on the spectrum would be more comfortable having limited contact with others, the employer should respect those wishes. On the other hand, if the employee would like to interact with others, they should be able to do that. If they want support in doing so, the suggestions in the next list item may help them.
  • The organization remarked that no matter how much of a difference there is between the communication style a job is tailored towards and the communication style an employee uses, there are various methods employees can use to fulfill these requirements:
    • Augmentative and alternative communication: pointing to visuals that convey communication messages to others (the ICI website provided a list of devices that can be used for this purpose).
    • Social scripts: directions on how to approach various social situations that employees can follow when they experience these situations.
    • Translator: people who can translate the communication style that people on the autism spectrum use into the social language that non-autistic people use, and/or vice versa. It is important to note that while this method may work for some, it may embarrass others, who may not like attention being brought to their social skills.
    • Other methods that are customized towards the employee, as created by the employee, speech-language therapists, and employment specialists.
  • Employees will benefit from being assigned to work with co-workers who are welcoming, friendly, sensitive, and patient.
  • As OCALI wrote, you should be willing, and make sure your non-autistic employees are willing, to clarify the social meaning of their words or tone of voice. They should also be ready to give employees on the spectrum direct, positive, and ongoing feedback and explanations of expected social rules.

4. Environment

  • Some employees on the autism spectrum may stim. Stimming is a slang word used in the autism community to describe repetitive motions, such as rocking. Many people who are not on the spectrum stigmatize these actions as being "abnormal" or "strange." However, stimming actually serves a functional purpose: these motions help people on the spectrum self-regulate the overwhelming sensory environment around them. Thus, you should let your employee stim and educate your other employees on the reason why their co-worker might stim. The ICI also approved of this idea.
  • If an employee’s stimming is distracting to the people around them, then it may be suitable to give the employee a separate space where they can stim alone.
  • EARN felt that employees should provide employees with a fragrance-free environment.
  • While the ideal environment for some people on the spectrum may be spaces without a lot of noise and other sensory stimulation, there are a number of small accommodations that can be made to help an employee work better in an environment with high stimuli. The ICI suggested giving employees headphones or sunglasses, creating divided quiet sections in a room, or slow introductions to such environments. If possible, employers should consult with their employees as to which accommodations they would prefer.

5. Bias training

It is highly-encouraged that everyone undergo anti-disability bias training. No matter how good a person is, due to the way our society is built, everyone possesses some level of implicit or explicit anti-disability sentiments. The Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) may have recommendations of potential trainers.

Autism is a disability that is widely misunderstood, and many people feel that the way those on the autism spectrum communicate is inferior or that their way of living is worthy of pity. It is crucial to understand the following concepts:

  • Non-autistic communication (having so-called "social skills") is a privilege, not what’s "normal." The ability to communicate in a manner that is shared and understood by the majority of people gives users of this communication style a leg up in life that people on the autism spectrum are not granted.
  • The communication styles that a person on the autism spectrum may use (such as augmentative or alternative communication, limited eye contact, and direct, literal, explicitly clear communication) are just as valuable as non-autistic communication. The only reason "autistic" communication styles are stigmatized is because not many people use or understand them. If the majority of people used the kinds of communication people on the spectrum use, that style would be considered the norm, and non-autistic communication would be stigmatized.
  • People on the autism spectrum do not need or want the pity of people without autism. People on the autism spectrum want to be valued as equals worthy of respect. Oftentimes, the reason people pity those on the spectrum is because they face so many obstacles in life. In reality, though, many people on the spectrum are not impaired by their own abilities. Non-autistic society’s bigotry, discrimination, and ignorance towards the abilities of people on the spectrum created those obstacles in the first place.

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