Managing autistic employees: tips, understanding and benefits




Many people on the autistic spectrum have skill-sets that make them an asset to any business. Furthermore, hiring autistic people can help cement a more open workplace culture that can be enriching for all parties involved. Managing autistic employees may come with a unique set of challenges, but a greater knowledge and level of understanding can enable your new recruits to shine.

What is autism?

Autism is a neurological difference that affects around 1% of the global population. In the UK alone, the National Autistic Society believes that 1.1% of the population may be autistic. There is a wide range of behavioural patterns associated with autism, although these mainly affect communication, social skills and sensory issues. 

Once treated as a disability or illness, a growing understanding of the condition has led to autism being more widely viewed as a different way of thinking to the majority. Autism is perhaps the best-known form of neurodiversity – see our article on what is neurodivergent: examples, definition & types for more information on other conditions.

What causes autism?

There’s no hard evidence to say what causes autism, although symptoms are often expressed by children at a very young age. Some studies suggest that older parents are more prone to having autistic children. However, as plenty of older parents have neurotypical children, it’s likely to stem from a number of genetic-related factors. 

Types of autism

Asperger’s

Asperger’s is often seen as a milder form of autism. Some people with this condition are able to adopt learned behaviours and appear neurotypical in many settings. However, those with Asperger’s usually find great difficulty in social situations, may be obsessional in their interests, and be hypersensitive to light, sound, or taste. 

Many of those with Asperger’s suffer from anxiety, often from being placed in situations they find challenging, such as a crowded, noisy office space. When comfortable in their surroundings, people with Asperger’s can be incredibly-focused, driven, and creative.

Atypical autism

Atypical autism is seen by many to be an outdated diagnosis in the modern age. It was previously used by doctors for children who showed some signs of autism but not others. With Asperger’s being better understood in today’s world, most autistic children at the present time can be diagnosed with either this or autistic disorder (see below).

Autistic disorder

Autistic disorder is the original diagnosis of autism in people. Today it is often used for more extreme cases of autism and for people exhibiting more symptoms beyond Asperger’s. As with milder forms of the condition, people with autistic disorder may face challenges with communication and social situations. People with severe cases of autistic disorder may need help to manage their daily lives.

Benefits of autism in the workplace

The benefits of neurodiversity for employers are becoming more widely known. Autistic people have strengths and weaknesses, just like neurotypical individuals. Many will be stronger in certain areas than their neurotypical counterparts. One study found that autistic employees are 48% faster and up to 92% more productive than their non-autistic peers. The main difference concerns enablement – providing workplace conditions that allow autistic people to thrive.

A person with autism can have great originality of thought, so may bring creative ideas to the table far beyond those that your neurotypical workers are capable of. They may show amazing levels of attention-to-detail, unique ways of problem-solving and a dedication to getting the job done.

Can you be denied a job because of autism?

Legally, nobody can be denied a job because of autism. However, given that only 21.7% of autistic adults are in any kind of paid employment, it’s likely that many autistic people have missed out on jobs for indirect reasons. 

As mentioned above, the challenge for many autistic people in the workplace is not related to skill-sets but in dealing with social and sensory situations. Traditional interview processes are not geared towards accommodating the needs of autistic people, and so many autistic people miss out for reasons unrelated to ability.

How can I help an autistic employee?

After knowledge and understanding, the key word to remember when managing autistic employees is flexibility. In order to build for the long-term, you’ll need to adapt working processes on a regular basis and to keep an open mind at all times. You can find an overview of managing neurodiverse employees and how to offer support in the workplace here.

Update your knowledge

A sound knowledge of autistic behavioural patterns will help prepare you for when it comes to managing autistic employees. You’ll have an idea of what to expect, potential challenges in store and how you might adapt the workplace to meet the needs of the individual.

Educate your team

Ensure your fellow workers are just as savvy as you are when it comes to autism. They may need to modify their own neurotypical behaviours to accommodate an autistic co-worker.

Treat autistic employees as individuals

Even those with a great knowledge of autism need to treat autistic employees as individuals. Autistic people will display different symptoms and face different challenges. Attempting to fit them into categories won’t work.

Ask your employee’s advice

The person who knows best is the employee themselves! When it comes to adapting your workplace, communication methods or working patterns, take their advice. They’ll be able to explain precisely what’s needed to allow them to thrive. They may need a quiet space in the office or speech-recognition software. They may prefer written communication to verbal. Some may need to wear sunglasses to avoid any glare from screens or lights.

Be clear & concise

Avoid idioms, slang, or language with hidden meaning when managing autistic employees. Some individuals may not be able to pick up your actual intentions if you use language in this way, and others may take it too literally. When it comes to setting tasks or deadlines, be crystal clear. For example, don’t set a deadline for ‘later today’ – set it for a specific time, such as 3pm.

Conduct regular reviews

Make reviews informal and agree to them in advance with employees to remove any element of surprise or anxiety that may stem from an impromptu meeting. Reviews are best conducted on a one-to-one basis and should not follow your normal pattern of performance reviews. 

Autistic employees should be given the opportunity to comment on anything that needs changing regarding their working setup. When dealing with performance, be careful with the words you use, as it may be difficult for some autistic people to take criticism on board.

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The issue of autism at work is not a particularly new one – it’s just a more open question in today’s world. If you want to hire the best available candidates and see your business realise its potential, then managing autistic employees can bring huge rewards for everyone involved.

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