Autistic individuals in the job market experience discriminating barriers that challenge their ability to attain and retain employment. The belief is that social situations, self-starting, and organization are challenges for these individuals; however, these generalizations are misleading. With the right supports and tools in place, employers will find that autistic employees are reliable, pay attention to detail, and add value to their workforce.
When you consider hiring an autistic individual, you need to be aware of the aspects of the workplace which may cause stress. For example, they may struggle to move from one task to the next or find it hard to transfer skills learned in one task to a new one without support and training. There may be topics that need to be explicitly explained and reinforced, such as, understanding office etiquette to changes in routines.
With knowledge of the potential barriers, it’s easy to learn how to manage an autistic employee. Some of the adaptations you may need to make include:
- Keep it simple – people with Asperger’s learn best when the language used is direct and concrete – metaphors and sarcasm should be avoided as these idioms may be taken at face value. Where possible, instructions should be written down in bullet point form or as a checklist for easy reference.
- Break the task down – for many employees, giving a broad instruction and expecting them to work out how to do it is seen as a way of building agency and independence. For an employer of an autistic employee, these nebulous tasks need to be broken down into concrete steps, and the process should build in regular check-ins to make sure the steps are being completed accurately and successfully. An interesting side effect of this approach is that many employers find ways to make the process more efficient for everyone when they have to break the task into its explicit components.
- Debrief frequently – your employee on the spectrum will have days fraught with potentially challenging situations that they don’t feel equipped to handle or don’t know how to handle. They tend to have a strong sense of justice and see the world in black and white terms, both of which can rub co-workers the wrong. Be prepared to spend time with them to debrief situations, focusing on what went well and what would help them to improve the outcomes of the situations.
One of the most important keys to managing an employee on the spectrum is to make sure that your staff know what to expect and to be part of the team helping them to succeed. If your staff know about some of the key challenges that the person on the spectrum will face, they’ll be more likely to react with empathy instead of judgment, and this sense of acceptance and cooperation will only benefit the harmony and productivity of your entire workforce.
Terms such as Aspergers and High-Functioning autism have been replaced with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the current version of the DSM published in 2013. To differentiate between how much a person is affected by autism, three levels have been established. Level 1 includes people who were previously diagnosed with Aspergers or High-Functioning autism. For this article, we are referring to Level 1 individuals on the autism spectrum. For brevity’s sake, we will use the adjective autistic to refer to these individuals.