Effective management of people has always been a key part of working life for all employees. The relationship between a manager and their reports has a direct impact on the health, morale, motivation, productivity, and success of the team. However, this explanation lacks the depth and emotional intelligence to manage talented people who do not necessarily fit a person with autism. So, imagine managing talented and creative autistic people, who may need the manager to be flexible and highly adaptive to neurodiverse workplace needs. Not an easy question to answer for HR or any manager.
As with all of us, autistic people have life and career aspirations, strengths, and challenges. However, autistic people (certainly not all) can experience learning difficulties, mental health, and social and behavioural challenges. Suggesting the individual and the management team will need ongoing and tailored levels of support to help those involved thrive at work.
However, none of these potential difficulties are insurmountable for the progressive HR, management & leadership team. Moreover, empathy, acceptance, and adaptations in the workplace for the autistic person will no doubt result in a dedicated and highly productive member of the team.
Collaborating with an autistic person can be an enriching experience for managers and colleagues alike. However, support is essential to make the transition a successful process. So, with all this in mind here are a few suggestions to take forward to help diverse workplaces thrive.
Management adaptations to support autistic (and non-autistic) employees:
The following recruiting tasks will need distinct adaptations to encourage both autistic and non-autistic people to apply for roles in the organisation.
Job descriptions & person specifications written in plain English.
Essential skills, abilities and experiences needed for the role.
The generic “great communicator” or “team player” may need more clarification.
Autistic candidates can be encouraged to apply for jobs that they may have previously felt ineligible for.
Changing job descriptions with clean and unambiguous jargonless language will demonstrate, firstly compliance with the “Equality Act” (2010) and secondly, the agility to make reasonable adjustments for candidates.
Consider providing the questions & the location to the candidate before the interview.
Most autistic people (and non-autistic) like to know what is going to happen, what the interview will be like and who they will meet. Ideally in a letter, with a visual timetable and pictures if appropriate, as well as being provided verbally. Provide interview questions before the meeting, and if necessary, encourage the person to bring notes and a supporter.
The physical environment
Adapt the environment for potential sensory issues. Is there flickering buzzing strip lighting, noises from outside the room, echoes, a ticking clock? If so, change to a different room.
The social environment
Include placing the interviewer and interviewee’s chairs at various positions rather than sitting opposite one another. Can prevent enforced eye contact that creates an uncomfortable environment. Offer the interviewee the choice of where they would feel most comfortable to sit.
Talk to the individual and those who know them about their attention span, whether they will need a break, and for how long. Plan for a break(s) and stick to it wherever possible.
Autistic people can face difficulties with social skills. Therefore, may find an in-person interview situation overwhelming and impact their ability to perform at their best. However, research shows that many autistic and non-autistic interviewees find a face-to-face interview situation more motivating. As a result, recall information more accurately when they are interviewed in person when compared to answering questions online or on the phone.
During the interview
Autistic people can find it difficult to know the level of detail required when they are asked open-ended style questions, such as ‘Tell me about yourself’. These questions are often too ambiguous and incomprehensible for some autistic candidates. The questions tend to contain little structure, particularly regarding the need to include positive information about achievements, goals, aspirations, self-descriptions, and self-evaluations. This can limit their ability to give you their best attributes, skills, abilities, and most relevant experience.
You can help an autistic person by asking direct questions that require specific details and examples. If the question has more than one part, ask each one in turn. Try to avoid “question stacking” as autistic people sometimes find it difficult to remember lots of information all at once. So, provide them with the questions, as mentioned before, so they can refer to them during the interview. This can help them structure their responses and keep on track.
If you want to learn more about question stacking, watch our short YouTube video here.
Start to raise awareness of Autism through learning and integration.
Employers can equip themselves with a good understanding of what autism is and how the spectrum manifests in the workplace. It is vitally important to communicate why recruiting people on the spectrum fits with the organisation’s values. These can be greater inclusion and the benefits to company culture. This can be communicated as a catalyst for creating clear processes, increasing communication skills throughout the company, plus boosting creativity, and innovation.
Get the leadership team’s buy-in for employing a more autism-inclusive workforce. For diversity & inclusion to be successful, it is vital to have support from the top down and to build partnerships with human resources to promote diversity and inclusion.
Train mentors, employ a “buddy” system and bring in a job coach who specialises in collaborating with people with autism to help them thrive. Put a support bubble in place to help mentor the recruit about workplace expectations such as etiquette, unwritten rules, dress code, roles and expectations, and social norms. Acceptance is the key, so try not to place excessive pressure on autistic people to be social or anything else that can create an uncomfortable environment.
Plan to make workplace adaptations and adjustments for all sensory needs. Everyone is different, so plan to make accommodations to help recruits with autism be successful. For example, if noise or light sensitivity is an issue, provide noise-cancelling headphones or change the lighting. If making eye contact is uncomfortable for the individual, then coach the team to mirror the recruit’s behaviour to avoid looking directly into their eyes.
Try to ensure the workplace is well structured and organised. Many autistic employees may need help to prioritise activities, organise tasks into a timetable for daily, weekly, and monthly activities, and break larger tasks into smaller steps. Some will appreciate precise information about start and finish times, and help getting into a routine with breaks.
Provide updates about changes in tasks and meetings well in advance and offer meeting notes and an agenda to help them prepare beforehand. Offer regular, task-focused, non-ambiguous, objective, and concise feedback. Play to the person’s strengths rather than try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Work with the individual rather than against them. Perhaps offering opportunities for regular breaks in fresh air and natural light will help the person keep a sense of control and equilibrium. If there is a chance to work flexibly and more remotely, this will demonstrate trust and will be rewarded with a highly focused and diligent employee.
Support for management to manage autistic individuals and the existing staff team to accept more diversity in the workplace can be challenging. However, with support and understanding of autism and neurodiversity in the workplace, HR teams and managers can work toward encouraging a talented, creative, and diverse workforce. There is much more to gain by embracing difference at work.
Most autistic people thrive in structured environments that can be facilitated by active agile management. Collaborating with your employees, you can craft a timetable that prioritises tasks and will break larger projects into actionable more manageable steps. Regular objective feedback on performance is helpful also in building trust and focus on priorities. In the end, being open to employing and actively managing the workplace for autistic people will no doubt be an enriching experience for all concerned.