Picture by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash 

With recognition, awareness and diagnosis of autism spectrum conditions on the increase, it’s imperative that organisations, in particular managers, are equipped with the skills necessary to manage diverse workforces. Given this, my blog will focus on tips that I would give to a line manager managing an autistic employee, based on my personal experiences of having worked in a range of workspaces - and from being autistic myself.

 

1. Terminology

Firstly, a note on language: in the UK, the preference is to say that the person is autistic, as opposed to ‘a person with autism’. People are born with autism, and it is an integral part of who we are. Also, avoiding language that suggests that one ‘suffers with autism’ is also crucial. We all possess strengths and weaknesses and it’s about having those discussions to see what is affecting the person, and what can be done to help overcome these issues. And equally seeing what their strengths are. It is best to view autism as a difference rather than a limitation or disorder. For more information on language to use, please read about ‘the terms we use.

2. Direct communication

When communicating with an autistic employee, it’s best to be clear, and to use direct, to-the-point language that avoids irony, euphemisms and other non-literal speech. This way they will have a better understanding of what you mean, and what you want from them. This may mean using email to clarify conversations that have taken place face-to-face, and to perhaps veer towards bullet-pointed lists if there are multiple points being made.

Aside from the day-to-day communication, direct communication should also be reflected in wider company stance on clear communications, which extends to unambiguous language in job descriptions, general company signage, codes of conduct, as well as the intranet site.

3. Consistency

This is the key to life for me. I like to know what’s happening; when and where. I want to know what will be taking place in the days ahead. I bask in the rhythm of routine. Last minute changes are hugely disruptive and affecting, and can lead to overwhelm, anxiety and meltdown. Where possible, try to keep a steady schedule for your autistic employee with minimal changes. This extends to having a consistent workstation in the office (no hot-desking).

4. A defined set of responsibilities

Provide clear guidelines, targets and deadlines for the tasks in hand. And make them timely. Don’t assume they will understand the context of a task, and take the time to fill in the gaps in what you tell them. This will help your autistic employee plan their work and to ask questions ahead of time in terms of any holes in their understanding. This will help minimise stress and anxiety, and make working a more positive experience for all parties.

5. Regular catch-ups and feedback

I have always found this a useful to way to check-in and discuss my workload, as well as to ensure that I have understood my priorities correctly. The latter point is especially useful, as sometimes a colleague may communicate that something is critical, and use body language that suggests urgency, however I won’t necessarily be able to ‘read between the lines’ and understand its true importance. These situations I find really confusing, but by having regular catch-ups with a manager, you can sense check that you’ve understood things properly – and alter course if necessary.

I also find receiving feedback helpful more generally, just to see how I’m doing and whether I’m ‘getting it right’. When given constructively, I find I’m striving forward, as I’m supported and have a manager that I can trust and turn to. Equally if things aren’t going well, or as expected, these catch-ups are important in spotting issues early on and finding solutions for them. Diarise these sessions in advance, make them regular and at consistent times.

6. Flexible working

For me, especially as we come out of lockdown, and look to return to the office environment, this feels hugely important. Flexible working enables me to plan work around my general health and wellbeing. For instance, I enjoy a later start because I like to spend time in the morning meditating, exercising and having a good breakfast before work. This morning routine really sets me up for the day. But equally, if I’m not doing well; if I haven’t slept well, or experienced overwhelm the previous day, or had a heavy social week at work/outside – I may want to work a little more flexibly. For these reasons, I find self-employment works best for me – but wouldn’t it be amazing if a workplace could provide a similar level of flexibility to being self-employed? I think it’s well worth having the conversations, as you’ll be surprised that you’re unlikely to be asked for anything particularly unreasonable.

7. Flexibility in the workplace

As well as flexibility in terms of working hours and patterns, it’s also worth having the discussion around being flexible in the workplace more generally. For instance, I find wearing headphones very helpful at times. To minimise sensory overload, as well as to help focus. But I know I’ve worked in teams where it’s considered anti-social, or managers just haven’t liked it. Also, taking breaks during the working day has helped me considerably. I appreciate that these are examples of what has worked well for me, and that people need to consider what is appropriate for themselves. Everyone is different. So do take the time to discuss ways in which your autistic employee can be supported in the workplace. Have a read of the sections for employers regarding making further types of adjustments at both the recruitment and employment stage of the employee journey. I would also add that it’s about having a creative and individual approach to such solutions.

8. Consider the work environment

This point centres around sensory issues in the working environment and considerations that can be made to minimise aspects such as bright lights, background noise, strong smells and desk positioning. Many autistic people can have strong sensory sensitivities and be significantly, and adversely, affected by such issues. It’s about making the environment a calmer, more sensitively designed place to work, as best as possible. I know in my case, I can’t be around a ticking clock or anything that makes a repetitive sound, nor around any bright light or tube style lighting. Moreover, I need to sit on the periphery of a room and away from a kitchen (too many ad-hoc startling sounds, plus sudden bursts of sharp smells). A private office or remote workplace could also be options to consider.

9. Identify alternate ways to progress

Not everyone is made for the ‘typical’ progression routes in an organisation. I know I wouldn’t wish to lead a team, for instance – such a notion mortifies me. But in some workplaces, this is seen as an integral path for the route to success. So, what’s available instead? It’s about thinking of alternatives that would suit the individual and ensuring that there is a plan for them going forwards, and what this could look like. This may involve taking on additional responsibilities in other areas – ones that may be less people focused, for example. The key is to ensure that there is a way in which they can have a rising future at the organisation and that there is a progressive path that they can strive towards.

10. Manage mental health

Though the last point on my list, this is by no means the least important. Often autistic people can be very meticulous and detail orientated, which is great, and a real asset to the team and workplace. However, we can also have tendencies towards perfectionism and become anxious if our performance is not perfect. I know I can veer towards this trait if I’m not in balance. I am also highly prone to stress, so a large workload (or impending one) can be hugely distressing and affecting for me. As well as keeping an eye on your autistic employees, it’s about those regular check-ins and ensuring that they feel they can come and speak to you outside of these times, if they wish to. I tend to not use ‘ad-hoc’ sessions, due to their spontaneity, but can appreciate that they may be necessary if things aren’t going well. I must say I do find reassurance in the fact that they are available. And for me, that’s enough. I also sometimes find I’m not always aware that I’m struggling: either I’m masking, or I’m simply not aware of struggles that I’m trying to contain and hold down. By having a good relationship with your employees, you’re far more likely to detect and pick up on this. Or at least leave the door open to such discussions. 

These ten points are a starting point; a tick box to consider and a framework to base managing your autistic employee relationships around. Due to the individual differences, each person presents differently, so this list is by no means exhaustive. My hope is that it’s a decent enough starting point in having a positive and supportive relationship with your autistic employees, whom I’m sure will provide you with high-quality work, loyalty, a creative perspective – and far more besides in return.

Mahlia Amatina
July 2021

See our other sections on recruiting and managing autistic staff, and the benefits of a diverse workforce.