Recruiting and supporting autistic employees into the workplace

Many employers assume that they do not need to make any changes until a worker identifies him/herself as autistic and requests adjustments. However, there are plenty of changes that an employer can implement to make the workplace more autism-friendly before an individual request it. This will also benefit workers who may not be aware that they are on the autism spectrum, who do not have a formal diagnosis, who do not feel ready to ‘come out’ and/or do not have the confidence to ask for changes.  Forbes Councils Member, Nish Parikh (1) argues “Having an open and empathetic attitude is the way forward to harness the potential of individuals who may think differently than the rest of their peers, who perhaps have different ways of communicating and who solve problems differently.  Every individual can bring different talent, expertise and skills. It is up to HR professionals to map their strengths to their organization’s needs and bring diverse innovation in the workplace”. (2) give detailed practical suggestions for supporting autism at work. Although written with the autistic workforce in mind, these approaches can be helpful for the range of neurodiverse conditions. Adaptations should start at the recruitment stage, for example considering the language used in job descriptions.  Consider what abilities and experiences are genuinely essential for the job to be done well, and leave out any that are not. Are qualities such as ‘excellent communication skills’ or ‘good team player’ necessary for that specific role?  Many autistic people would be put off applying for jobs demanding these attributes despite having strong skills that are directly relevant to the tasks involved.

Application forms should include a space for applicants to highlight any support or adjustments they may need at an interview and it can be wise to include a word count limit If you are asking an applicant to write about their skills or suitability for a role.

The interviews stage process should be evaluated for suitability – particularly ‘traditional’ conversational type interviews which rely heavily on social and communication skills. Making reasonable adjustments during an interview is essential to allow autistic candidates to portray their skills and competencies fully so that you can make an informed choice about who to recruit. For example, providing clear and concise written and visual information about the interview, providing a quiet and calm space for the candidate to wait prior to their interview away from other visitors or general staff, avoiding general questions (e.g., ’Tell me about yourself’) and hypothetical or abstract questions, (e.g., ‘How do you think you’ll cope with working if there are lots of interruptions?’).  Instead of asking for specific examples (e.g., ‘Can you tell me about a time in a previous role where you had to cope with interruptions?’).  A work trial or a period of work experience could be used as an alternative way of assessing skills instead of a formal interview.

Under the Equality Act 2010 it is important to seriously consider reasonable adjustments to ensure your workplace is inclusive.  Many adjustments organisations make to support neurodivergent employees can benefit all employees. Strategies should be put in place to enable the employee to excel in their role and not be held back by traditional structures and ways of working. Your autistic staff member may have some challenges in adapting their existing skills and knowledge to new tasks or environments. This can make the work environment hard and may cause misunderstandings among other staff, particularly as neurodiversity is an invisible condition. However, there are many simple ways to ensure that the employee is supported.

  • Provide clear and specific directions with all instructions and policies to be written and communicated clearly and accurately. Clarify expectations of the job.  This includes both the job description and tasks and the etiquette and unwritten rules of the workplace. When requesting work do not assume common understanding- for example, rather than saying ‘Give everybody this paper’, say ‘Make three photocopies of this, and give one each to x, y and z’. Even better, provide a list of who it needs to go to and any other written instructions. It can be helpful to ask the person to repeat back instructions so you are sure they have understood.
  • Provide training and monitoring – formal and / or informal. 
  • Ensure the company’s occupational health services are equipped to provide assistance.
  • Look at the work environment– a fairly structured work environment tends to work best. Help the staff member to prioritise activities, organising tasks into a timetable for daily, weekly and monthly activities, and breaking larger tasks into small steps. If appropriate, precise information about start and finish times, breaks and lunch routines can be helpful.
  • Regularly review performance.  As with any employee, regular one to one meetings with line managers are important.  However, brief, frequent reviews may be better than longer sessions at less frequent intervals.   There might be different ways of structuring these too.  For example, creating a mind-map of the things that the employee is finding difficult and sharing ideas around solutions is ideal for a visual person.  Consider alternative communication methods – many autistic people are unable to verbalise their feelings but excel at writing; maybe the employee could write the answers to the questions prior to the meeting.
  • Ensure feedback is direct, constructive and consistent – a neurodivergent person often finds it difficult to pick up on social cues.  Do not allude to, or imply problems – instead, explain tactfully but clearly why it is wrong, check that they have understood, and set out exactly what they should do instead. Be aware that some autistic people may have low self-esteem or experience of being bullied, so ensure that any criticism is sensitive, and give positive feedback wherever appropriate.
  • Anxiety levels can be high if the person feels their performance is not perfect. Providing reassurance in stressful situations and concrete solutions to these situations can be helpful. Having a mentor or buddy in the workplace can be helpful – an empathetic colleague who they can go to if they are feeling stressed, anxious or confused.
  • If an autistic person becomes anxious for any reason, try to find out what is causing the problem. One-to-one sessions are probably the best situation for doing this. You may need to think laterally. For example, the stress may not be caused by a difficulty in the job but by a colleague not being explicit in their instructions, or by things not working efficiently (e.g. computer crashing).
  • Flexible work days/hours to maximize “peak performance;”; for others fixed hours rather than variable shifts may be helpful.  Extra breaks to enable relaxation, or movement breaks for those with ADHD.  Working slightly longer hours but with more frequent breaks may work better.
  • Image-based task lists to provide examples of work at various stages, or image-based calendars to mark projected milestones; a visual timetable or organiser app.
  • Have backup plans to help eliminate the stress of unscheduled needs/changes e.g. what to do if the photocopier breaks.
  • Dealing with change can be particularly hard for the neurodiverse person.  Pre warn of the changes well in advance and provide individual support your staff member to prepare for these.
  • Look at the work environment. Individuals can struggle with sensory distractions.  Screens around their desk, noise-cancelling headphones, a corner desk, can help this.  A personal workstation (rather than sharing a workstation or ‘hot-desking’) is preferable. The provision of both open office spaces versus and private working space is ideal.  Have fragrance-free environments.
  • Support individuals with logistical challenges, e.g., food and transport. Encourage the employee to effectively communicate what they need at work.
  • Make mental health challenges less taboo by offering support sessions on burnout, self-esteem, sleep, boundaries, and communication. If your autistic employee consents to their condition being disclosed, then providing colleagues with information and guidance on autism can benefit everyone. Sometimes the employee may find it helpful to write a document for other staff explaining what their colleagues can do to support them. You could consider staff training.
  • Include neurodiversity in harassment and bullying policies, so that managers or employees who bully or discriminate against autistic workers are dealt with appropriately.

All workers have limitations and strengths in work tasks and perform different tasks with different levels of competence.   As with any employee, focus on the strengths of neurodiverse talent, and help them manage their weaknesses. Everyone has unique abilities to succeed at work if given the right environment and opportunity.  Make it clear that any adaptations for them in the workplace are there to help them keep doing their job well, not because they are not good enough.   It is important that the rest of your workforce has the context with which to understand such accommodations — both to prevent misunderstandings and accusations of favouritism, and to encourage neurodiverse colleagues to ask for what they need.

Some aspects of good support and management apply to all employees generally, not just those with neurological conditions: giving clear instructions, ensuring staff are not overloaded, providing a working environment that is free of distractions.

To reduce misunderstandings and tensions with colleagues it is vital that employers raise awareness.  ACAS (3) suggest a number of ways

  • highlighting the organisation’s commitment to supporting neurodiversity and the actions being undertaken to improve the workplace
  • arranging activities, awareness days, campaigns, training and workshops to educate staff
  • providing readily available, simple and useful information to staff on different forms of neurodivergence
  • making sure staff have the time and a safe, suitable environment to learn about and discuss neurodiversity
  • creating ‘neurodiversity champions’ and a support network (and regularly publicising it to staff)
  • updating policies and guidance on disability to also refer to neurodivergence
  • encouraging neurodivergent senior managers and leaders to openly disclose and talk about it
  • sharing stories about successful neurodivergent role models and talking openly about reasonable adjustments that have been implemented in the workplace.

(see also the following article ‘Working with a neurodiverse colleague’)

Increasing diversity in the workplace is not about hitting equality targets or showing social responsibility within the organisation. It’s about hiring people because they truly meet a need in the business and possess the skills needed to excel in their job. Be flexible and open to exploring new ways of working as a company. Just as no two neurodiverse individuals have identical personalities, preferences or skills, there is no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to supporting neurodiversity at work. have an Employment Training Service that can provide information about state-funded initiatives and the training and consultancy they provide. This includes online training modules. Also refer the DWP Autism and Neurodiversity Toolkit for staff and managers- a resource to support awareness and understanding of Autism Spectrum Conditions and providing practical guidance for supporting people who have neurodiverse conditions into employment. Autism and Neurodiversity Toolkit | DWP (5)

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