Five reasons why buddy schemes are so crucial for autistic employeesPicture by Cat Creative Photography

I’m a huge advocate of buddy schemes. Always have been. In fact, I even made a request to have a buddy at a previous job where I was really struggling. It was implemented too late in this instance, (I only lasted a couple of months at the organisation), but I knew back then that having a buddy was important and could really help make the onboarding process a lot easier. And since my diagnosis of autism, I’ve come to understand why having a buddy has been so key, and this blog will explore these reasons.

A buddy is different to a mentor

At a simplistic level, a buddy is an informal role provided by a peer (usually at the same level as you), while a mentor is a more formal and structured relationship with someone who may be more senior to you, or from outside the organisation. There is also greater focus on progression and career development when working with a mentor. I’d like to add that I’m also a fan of mentoring, but that won’t be covered in this blog.

There has been research on the benefits of buddy schemes more generally, but what’s so great about a buddy scheme for autistic employees? Well firstly, what’s not to love about having someone showing you the ropes and helping decipher organisational nuances in those crucial first weeks? That’s true, but for an autistic employee, it goes a lot deeper than that, as starting a new job can be an immensely stressful experience, and change in general can be difficult for autistic people. Read on to hear my top five reasons why buddy schemes are so helpful for autistic employees.

1. The chance to check everything. Twice.

I always have so many questions. Small ones especially. I want detail. Complete information.

As a very thorough and detailed person, I need someone who can fill in every minute gap for me. If I asked my line manager all these questions, they simply wouldn’t have the time, and may even get a get a bit frustrated with me. But with a buddy, I can ask away – and they can add useful context. As well as my extensive questions, I struggle profoundly with directions and get lost easily. It’s embarrassing. I also experience face-blindness so have trouble recognising people (unless they have very distinct features). By having a buddy, I can work with them to figure out how best to remember people and ways to navigate the workplace, without any of those awkward faux pas. It’s that level of context and comprehension that no employee handbook, line manager or colleague in general could provide.

2. Deciphering cultural norms to enable effective communication

Every organisation has different modes of communicating; its own niche culture and ways of doing things. I find it hard to simply ‘pick these up’ and need someone to decipher and translate them for me.

I need to be able to check that I’ve understood the context of each type of meeting, social event and away day.

Each type is different and presents a considerable amount of anxiety, but a buddy can help in enabling me to understand what to expect and to be prepared. By minimising these uncertainties and spelling out how the organisation functions with its unspoken rules – this support is incredibly priceless.

3. Having a friend. Sort of.

OK, I know that having someone allocated as your buddy isn’t the same as making an actual friend, and I am aware of this distinction. But a buddy can certainly introduce you to your wider peer group, and this can be a great way of meeting people and making connections that can then hopefully lead to friendship. I know when I’ve had a buddy in the past, it’s involved being invited out to lunches and generally being socially included. This has always given me a real boost in feeling settled and integrated. And yes, I appreciate that this may go against the myth (one of many!) that autistic people don’t want/like to have friends - but I’d like to quash that immediately in saying that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

4. A sounding board before things escalate

Communication can be tricky for autistic people, particularly in terms of understanding what someone actually means.

Unless someone speaks very clearly, I simply don’t capture the meaning. This is especially tough in the workplace, as I find people behave differently, and there are more ‘levels’ to a person’s communication. There isn’t that simplicity you have with a friend or family member. A buddy can help as a sounding board in checking what someone means and whether you’ve got it right. And I’d like to stress that this isn’t a permanent source of support that’s needed – it’s more when you’re new and haven’t figured out each person’s rules of behaviour and nuances. And it’s these initial weeks which can make or break your workplace experience.

5. Having someone to disclose to. If you wish.

I know I’ve mentioned how your buddy is not your friend, however they are still there for you in a supportive capacity. And that can be the perfect opportunity to disclose to them about being autistic. If you want to. And sometimes telling someone in a more informal capacity can be easier – I know it is for me. Starting a new role is such a huge step and change in itself, that knowing your buddy is someone you can speak to about being autistic, and how it may be making things trickier as you transition, can make all the difference.

I haven’t found any specific research on the efficacy of buddy schemes and the autistic (or neurodivergent) population, however I know at a personal level (and from other autistic people I know), that a buddy scheme has been completely invaluable when starting a new role – and staying in that job.

I wholeheartedly feel that more workplaces should consider such schemes.

And before you ask: no, the buddy doesn’t need to be a fellow autistic. They just need to be a friendly person who’s happy to help someone settle into a new workplace.

Mahlia Amatina

May 2021