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Managing Autism in the Workplace

Earlier this month (26th March – 2nd April 2018) it was Autism Awareness Week in the UK.

Over seven days, people, schools and businesses took part in activities to raise money and awareness for The National Autistic Society.

At Fusion Occupational Health, as part of our occupational health services, we work with employers to help them support their employees with autism. So we feel it’s important to help spread awareness of this condition and provide advice on how best to manage autism in the workplace.

What is autism?

Taking the time to learn about autism can drastically help those with the condition in the workplace.

Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.

There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK. In fact, it’s a lot more common than some people might think.

Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that while some people will share certain difficulties, it can affect people in different ways.

People need different levels of support but, with the right kind of help, they can live a fulfilling life.

How is it diagnosed?

Since the characteristics of autism can vary from person to person, a diagnosis will often include a formal identification from a multi-disciplinary team, including speech and language therapists, paediatricians, psychiatrists and/or psychologists.

A timely diagnosis can help autistic people and their friends, family and work colleagues understand why they might experience certain difficulties.

Over the years, different diagnostic labels have been used that reflect the different diagnostic manuals and tools used.

Changes to the main diagnostic manuals mean that 'autism spectrum disorder' (ASD) is now likely to be the most commonly used diagnostic term.

What causes autism?

The exact causes of autism are still unknown, although so much can be done to support those with the condition in the workplace.

The exact cause is still being investigated. Research suggests that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may account for differences in development.

However, autism is not caused by upbringing or social circumstances and is not the fault of the person with the condition.

There is no 'cure' for autism. But by accessing services and support autistic people can employ strategies to help them cope with the difficulties they experience.

What should you do as an employee?

Autistic people can exhibit a variety of exceptional skills that can help them thrive in specific roles, from sales assistants and computer programmers to journalists and statisticians.

However, they often find it difficult to get and keep a job due to difficulties with social communication and interaction.

Social communication

Autistic people can find interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language difficult, including facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, jokes and sarcasm.

Many will take things literally and think that people always mean exactly what they say.

Some may have limited speech, preferring to use, alternative means of communication, such as sign language or visual symbols, while others will have good language skills, but may find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations.

It helps to speak in a clear, consistent way and to give autistic people time to process what has been said to them.

Social interaction

Autistic people often have difficulty recognising or understanding others' feelings and intentions.

They may also find it difficult to express their own emotions and struggle to form friendships.

As a result, they may:

  • appear to be insensitive
  • seek out time alone when overloaded by other people
  • not seek comfort from other people
  • behave in a way thought to be socially inappropriate

Sensory Sensitivity

Autistic people also experience extra sensitivity to sounds, which may affect their performance in the workplace.

Autistic people may also experience extra sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain.

This could cause anxiety or even physical pain.

Autistic employees can sometimes benefit from screens around their desk, noise-cancelling headphones, or placing their desk in a quiet corner.

Repetitive Behaviour and Routines

The world can seem unpredictable and confusing to autistic people.

They often prefer a repetitive daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. They may want to always travel the same way to and from work, or eat exactly the same food.

The use of rules can also be important. If they have been taught the 'right' way to do something, they may find it difficult to take a different approach.

People on the autism spectrum are often uncomfortable with the idea of change. Although they can sometimes cope with it if they are given time to prepare in advance.

Highly-Focused Interests

Many autistic people have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a young age.

Many can channel their interest into a meaningful occupation. In fact, they often report that the pursuit of these interests is fundamental to their well-being and happiness.

Top tips for Managing Autism in the Workplace

There are lots of things managers can do to manage autism in the workplace.

There are plenty of simple ways to improve the health and wellbeing of employees with autism in the workplace, ensuring that they have the support they need and a positive experience.

  • Clarify expectations of the job and be more explicit about your expectations
  • Provide clear and structured training and monitoring.
  • Make sure instructions are concise and specific.
  • Ensure the work environment is well-structured.
  • Regularly review performance. Brief, frequent reviews may be better than longer sessions.
  • Provide sensitive but direct feedback.
  • Provide reassurance in stressful situations.
  • Support your staff member to prepare for changes.
  • Ask about sensory distractions.
  • Help other staff to be more aware.

You can find more information from the National Autistic Society.

If you need some advice on how best to manage autism in the workplace, get in touch with the team at Fusion.

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Categories: EmployeesHealth & WellbeingMental HealthOccupational HealthSupport

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