by Deanna Parkton and Ed Hunter
Chances are, you are now, or will soon be working with an Autistic professional. Autistic colleagues can bring a remarkably fresh perspective and unique talents to any team… and some unique challenges for supervisors and co-workers. So how can you help them, and help your team?
First, a Little Context
Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects over 5 million adults in the United States per the CDC). Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.
ASD is a spectrum disorder, which means that one individual with autism can function very differently than another person with autism. Dr. Stephen Shore, an autistic professor of special education is quoted as saying: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Treating a person with ASD as a unique individual with their own strengths and weaknesses is more important than making assumptions based on their ASD diagnosis. That being said, having an understanding of ASD is helpful to supporting those on the spectrum in the workplace.
While individuals with autism typically have very strong skills in being detail-oriented and focused, it is common that those with ASD struggle with soft skills such as communication and social interactions. With professional environments thriving on interpersonal communications and social etiquette in the workplace, this can be a challenge for individuals on the spectrum.
Additionally, most job interview processes focus on the importance of communication skills and interpersonal acumen. This unfortunately puts individuals on the spectrum at a disadvantage. Studies show that as many as 90% of adults with autism are either underemployed or unemployed. Fortunately, there has been an increase of companies making the hiring of neurodivergent individuals a priority. For a list of companies doing work in this area, see our resource guide below.
There is still a long way to go in supporting individuals with ASD in the workplace. Educating yourself on autism as well as supporting those with autism are important first steps; not only in increasing employment rates, but also helping to ensure those affected a more positive professional experience.
Understanding the strengths and challenges that impact those with autism can help you to identify strategies to make the workplace a more productive and healthy environment.
How to Support Colleagues with ASD
- Provide clear directions when assigning projects or tasks
- Avoid vague descriptions or a “you’ll figure it out” attitude
- Avoid projects that require complex project management
- Focus on tasks that are:
- Require focus and a strong attention to detail i.e. research oriented work
- Flexibility in social and interpersonal expectations
- One-on-one interactions rather than group or team meetings that can cause social clutter and anxiety
- Respecting personal space
- Consistent and specific feedback
- Individuals on the spectrum are often not able to “read between the lines” or understand non-verbal cues. Be direct and clear in your feedback and guidance.
- Provide structure and clear expectations
- Avoid last minute or unexpected meetings or projects
- Allow for a set schedule and breaks (i.e. lunch at the same time every day, regularly scheduled meetings)
With proper planning and structure, simple accommodations can be made to support colleagues on the spectrum. This allows individuals with autism to utilize their strengths and best contribute to the organization.
For a personal perspective from an individual with autism, check out:
Resources Related to Hiring Individuals with Autism:
For more ideas on how you can strategize your work, consider working with a career coach. A coach can help you identify strategies to face challenges head on. Check out our executive coaching services and sign up for a free consultation here.
Deanna Parkton is a writer, career coach and educator with a passion for professional development and work wellness and happiness. With a focus on self-reflection, she works with individuals in their quest to reach their career goals as well as satisfaction in work-life balance. You can find more of her writing at workinglivingwell.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ed Hunter is a Professional Career and Executive Coach and principal of Life in Progress Coaching. He is certified by the international Coaching Federation as a Professional Certified Coach.. He is also a Certified Executive and Leadership Development Coach. Ed has coached over a thousand professionals to create authentic careers and balanced work lives, and has a special interest in career development for adults with Autism. To connect with Ed, schedule a free consultation here.