How employers and colleagues can best support their autistic coworkers

A person is working at their computer. Their face isn't visible in this image. They are wearing the sunflower lanyard which signifies disability.

With this week (27 March-2 April) marking World Autism Acceptance Week, we take a deeper dive into the experience of work for autistic people and how we can all better support our autistic colleagues. 

As stigma around neurodiversity continues to wane in the workplace, it’s important to remember that neurodiversity involves many different conditions and that each person living with neurodiversity is different and unique. Such is the case of autism, oftentimes one of the most understood neurodiversities.

Also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behaviour. Autistic people experience the world differently and may have difficulty processing sensory information, communicating their needs and emotions, and interpreting social cues. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects individuals in different ways and no two autistic individuals share the same experience.

When it comes to the workplace, there’s been more support and acceptance for autistic folk recently, but much like all facets of truly inclusive workplaces, there is always more work to be done. Staggering data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) revealed that only 29 per cent of autistic people are in any type of paid employment. Research done by Deloitte along with Auticon, a social enterprise placing autistic individuals in IT roles, found that 47 per cent of autistic employees mask their autism and don’t even disclose that part of themselves to their employers.

Content creator Ella Willis is posing for the camera on a black background. They are smiling for the camera and have their arms in their hands.
Ella Willis is a content creator and illustrator that advocates and talks about the issues autistic people face in their daily lives. (Ella Willis)

“It’s so important to not lead with stereotypes”

For Ella Willis (they/them), an autistic content creator and illustrator, it’s essential that employers don’t lean on stereotypes of autistic people and their capabilities at work. “It’s so important to not use a small amount of knowledge to make decisions about someone’s whole lived experience,” Willis said.

“Especially in workplaces, toxic stereotypes around intelligence and ability can really hinder autistic people in their success and comfort.”

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Aside from education and promoting inclusive working environments, there are other things that both coworkers and business leaders can do to ensure that autistic colleagues have the opportunity to thrive and be their authentic selves at work.

How employers can support their autistic employees

Willis believes that the responsibility to support autistic colleagues starts with the employer: “A lot of autistic people have anxiety and can struggle to ask for their support needs in jobs for fear of rejection and being met with ableism.” 

“It’s really refreshing to be met with understanding and welcoming ears.” 

When it comes to supporting autistic employees, the first and easiest step employers can do is to provide accommodations. These are changes in the work environment that enable autistic employees to be effective in their job. These can include modifications to the physical workspace, changes to work schedules, and adjustments to communication methods. 

A man wearing a denim shirt is wearing headphones while typing at a computer. There are other people having conversation behind him.
Employers need to consider sensory overload for their autistic employees. (Getty Images/PinkNews)

Pay attention to sensory sensitivities

Many autistic individuals are sensitive to sensory input, such as bright lights, loud noises, and strong smells. Employers can make the workplace more sensory-friendly by providing noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs to block out background noise, installing dimmer switches to control the lighting in the workspace and consider using unscented cleaning products.

Combine visual and verbal ways of communicating

Autistic individuals may struggle with verbal communication, making it challenging to express their needs and emotions. Employers can provide communication accommodations by using email or text messages to supplement IRL conversations. When these colleagues become overwhelmed or overstimulated – employers should consider providing a quite space in the office where autistic employees can retreat to and recalibrate themselves.

A person with long red hair is using a mobile device.
Using visual forms of communication to compliment verbal communication can help autistic coworkers process tasks and information. (Getty Images/PinkNews)

Promote flexible working

Autistic individuals may benefit from a flexible work schedule that allows them to work during times when they feel most productive. A great way employers can support their autistic employees is by promoting hybrid working or totally remote working arrangements. They should also provide flexibility in scheduling, allowing breaks and periods of rest. Employers should also offer up part-time or reduced hours if their autistic employees become overwhelmed.

“Setting boundaries can be the best way to protect ourselves”

While the first point of responsibility falls on the employers, Ellis thinks that colleagues also have a part to play in supporting autistic coworkers. “I find that autistic people are often branded as the unsociable colleague or the quiet one,” they said. 

“It’s important to remember that we can hit burnout a lot quicker than others and those ‘staff drinks’ or bubbly conversations could be the last straw and setting boundaries can be the best way to protect ourselves.”

Chances are, we all have colleagues who are autistic. But regardless, we should embrace neurodiversity, encourage all diversity and promote inclusion at work.