A guest blog from Joe Thomas at All Green PR:
Autism is far more common that most people realise. In the UK today, there over 700,000 individuals living with autism, which is a little more than 1 out of every 100 people. If you were to include their families, it’s safe to say that autism touches the lives of over 2.8 million people every single day.
Individuals with autism can have exceptional talents and can prove themselves to be invaluable assets to any business, but still there remains a stigma attached to bringing autism into the workplace. In fact, a recent Labour Force survey estimated that only 15% of adults with autism are in full-time employment.
Businesses have much to gain by understanding that making their workplaces ‘autism friendly’ isn’t about ticking boxes or meeting equal opportunities objectives, it’s about seeking out and tapping into the talent of individuals who can get the job done. Given that individuals with autism often excel in certain traits, from problem solving and concentration to memory skills and sheer dependability, it’s strange that this 15% employment figure isn’t much, much higher.
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects the way individuals interact and communicate with the world around them. It affects different individuals to varying degrees, meaning that some individuals may need more support than others. There is a misconception that autism is a ‘visible’ disability but this couldn’t be further from the truth; autism is a hidden disability that can manifest itself in a variety of different ways. Some individuals with autism may exhibit superior intellect whereas others may have additional learning disabilities.
Everybody on the autism spectrum has difficulty with social interaction, engagement and communication to some degree. Things like establishing relationships and reciprocating verbal and nonverbal communication (such as expressions and body language), can prove difficult. Some individuals with Autism may also struggle with abstract thinking, such as sequencing, organising and planning ahead. For this reason, it’s common for many individuals with autism to enjoy routines and familiar things – a trait that can prove particularly valuable in the world of work.
What are the benefits of employing someone with autism?
Many employers aren’t aware that people with autism, including those with Asperger syndrome, can be extremely well-skilled, highly qualified and employable individuals. While autism affects all individuals to varying degrees, it’s extremely common for these individuals to possess exceptional and unique skills that enable them to thrive in many everyday roles, from computer programmers and statisticians to journalists and writers. Unfortunately, due to difficulties with social skills and interaction, and a general lack of understanding of the condition among the general public, they are often overlooked as potential candidates.
As well as personal traits and individual strengths, it’s very common for individuals with autism to exude:
• High levels of concentration and focus
• Reliability and dependability
• Attention to detail and accuracy
• Technical abilities, such as coding and programming
• Factual knowledge and excellent memory
Not all individuals with autism will tick all of these boxes, but it’s highly likely that they’ll perhaps be better suited to certain tasks than millions of others. By gaining a better understanding of autism as a condition, businesses could enlist some exceptional talent while at the same time demonstrate their commitment to equality and diversity.
What you need to know about employing individuals with autism
Individuals with autism experience the world differently to other people. Autism isn’t an illness and can’t be cured, it’s a fundamental part of who these people are and forms the very basis of their identity. We’ve already mentioned that autism is a spectrum condition, so it affects some more than others, and that it isn’t a ‘visible’ condition, but these points can’t be stressed enough.
Individuals with autism have a wide range of symptoms, some considered positive and some considered limiting, that make each individual completely unique. Autism can be diagnosed at a very young age and while their behaviours and coping mechanisms are likely to evolve, many of these core ‘traits’ will be with them for the rest of their lives.
As a workplace, you need to treat people with autism as individuals, as you would anyone else. They do, however, share some common traits. Here are some things you should be aware of as a prospective employer of those with autism:
For individuals with autism, trying to understand facial expressions and body language can be a little bit like you or I trying to understand ancient Latin with no training. It’s simply not a language they can easily engage with. Some individuals with autism may not like speaking or will speak only a small amount, but they usually understand more than they express. As a potential employer, this is an important consideration.
Repetitive behaviours and patterns
This is by no means a bad thing. Individuals with autism find communication and social interaction difficult. They see the world in a different way to everybody else. For that reason, they usually enjoy familiarity and routines that give them a clear focus. These routines can vary from what they eat and when, to regular trips to school or work. It’s something that makes individuals with autism extremely reliable and dependable.
Interaction with others
Different to communication, interaction is about how individuals with autism behave around other people. Sometimes they may appear insensitive or apathetic because they don’t recognise how somebody else is feeling. Similarly, when feeling down themselves it is common for individuals with autism to seek solitude or familiarity rather than reach out to those around them. This can make it difficult for relationships to form in the workplace.
This is less common than the other symptoms but still affects a lot of individuals with autism. They can experience particular sensitivity in one or more of their senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. These senses can over-sensitive or under-sensitive which can have repercussions on everyday life.
How to interview somebody with autism
Some of the best interviews you’re ever likely to give will be with individuals who experience autism. They’re more likely than most to have a deep and rich understanding of subjects that they’re particularly interested in, many of which may have led them to apply for the role you’re interviewing for. However, it is also essential that you know a little about autism before interviewing somebody with the condition to make sure that everything goes smoothly and nobody (including the interviewer) feels uncomfortable.
For starters, find the ‘special interest’
Individuals with autism are likely to have a heightened interest in a particular field. They’re usually great at retaining facts and figures and, if you find that ‘special interest’ of theirs you’ll make them feel instantly comfortable and they’re likely to open up a lot more.
Don’t put them in a box
It’s easy for somebody who doesn’t understand autism to make generalisations, but really individuals with autism are just as unique as everybody else. Some may struggle with speech, others may be incredibly articulate. Some may be sensitive to light, others may be sensitive to sound. Some may respond well to your body language and facial expressions, others may seem despondent. Due to these differences, it’s always wise to put the needs of the individual above your own. You need to be open to adjusting the environment to making them comfortable, or perhaps be willing to communicate in an alternative way.
Dispense with social etiquette and jokes
This may not come naturally in a work environment, but individuals don’t respond well to sarcasm, jokes or certain kinds of small talk that might require them to respond in kind. Express yourself clearly and concisely and try to avoid social ambiguity and complex body language.
Be ready to go with the flow
Sometimes, in order to get the most out of interviewing an individual with autism, you need to be ready to go off on a tangent. Those with autism connect things in ways we might not be able to understand initially, and they see the world in a very different way. It may seem like they’re changing the subject or talking about something unrelated, but perhaps they’re just relating to your question or comment in a less obvious way. Tapping into this will help a great deal.
Don’t worry about delayed responses
Sometimes, when engaged in conversation with someone who has autism, it may seem like the conversation comes to a complete standstill and you may begin to feel a little awkward, but that’s okay. Some people with autism tend not to think in words and it can take them longer to process and respond to a question – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they haven’t understood the question. Patience is key here. If they didn’t understand, they’ll ask you to rephrase just as anybody else would.
Getting the most out of employees with autism
In previous sections, we mentioned all the different conditions and symptoms that an individual with autism can experience, from sensitivity to light and sound and difficulties with social interaction, to above average concentration and a great attention to detail. As an employer, here are some things to consider to make your workplace more autism-friendly:
Before their first day…
Get organised. Make sure that any induction material or corporate information is sent out beforehand so they’re fully aware of what to expect. This may include things like where they’ll be working, any uniform requirements, when their lunch break is, what holiday provisions there are etc. You may even consider a pre-start date visit, so they can familiarise themselves with the office space and the people there, which should make them less anxious on the big day.
Have a structured environment
Some people with autism really value a structured working environment. These individuals tend to enjoy routines and patterns, so work with them on establishing daily priorities and activities, and organise things into daily, weekly and monthly schedules. Sometimes, it’s better to give individuals with autism more space than others, preferably away from noise and traffic to make them less anxious.
Be reassuring and be prepared
It’s common for those with autism to be perfectionists. They can become genuinely distressed if what they’re doing isn’t meticulous or they’re suddenly pulled out of their routine in a big way. If something goes wrong at work, have a solution lined up. For example, if a printer breaks, make sure they know they can use the one on the 2nd floor, so their work doesn’t have to suffer. If they get something wrong and that thing is out of their control, such as arriving late due to traffic, make it clear to them that it isn’t a problem and work can carry on as usual.
Many individuals with autism tend not to think in words or, if they do, they do it with difficulty and it can take a long time for them to understand. It’s one of the reasons they often struggle with abstract concepts and forward planning. Implementing visual aids can help them to process information quickly and easily, and eventually, increase their confidence and independence. Get on their page and they’re likely to excel.
The Equality Act: what you need to know
The Equality Act came into force in October 2010 and is designed to improve equality and diversity in UK workplaces. After the passing of the Equality Act, it is now against the law for employers to discriminate against individuals based on any kind of disability. The act covers interview arrangements, job offers, terms of employment, dismissal, redundancy and more. It also requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the workplace to accommodate those with a disability, such as providing special equipment or adjusting working hours. An employer is still allowed to ask questions regarding an individual’s health or disability but only if it majorly affects their ability to carry out the work.
People with autism can bring a great deal to any role they undertake and often possess talents and skills that are well above the national average. The more prospective employers know about autism and how it affects individuals, the more they’ll be a viable choice when seeking candidates. Much of the stigma surrounding autism stems from a lack of knowledge, but that is slowly beginning to change as we learn more about the condition and support networks become better developed and suited to individuals with the condition.
Part of breaking down that stigma is altering the way employers think about autism. Rather than seeing it as a disability or something to help with their equal opportunities performance, they need to consider people with autism as the individuals they are, with talents, skills, strengths and weaknesses just like everybody else in the workforce.
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