Many autistic people have excellent technical and creative skills but may struggle more with the sensory and social environment. It is essential that you take the time to understand how autism affects the person you are working with, so that you are able to meet your legal responsibilities under the Equalities Act (2010) and Northern Ireland Disability Discrimination Act.

Autistic employees may struggle with:

  • Communicating with other people, misunderstanding social cues and may be misinterpreted by colleagues as being rude or unfriendly
  • Sensory environment in the office, especially being more sensitive to lights, sound and smell which can cause pain and increase anxiety
  • Unstructured time, changes to working routines and unclear expectations
  • Participating in meetings, team building and social activities
In a noisy place I can’t understand speech, because I cannot screen out the background noise.

Dr Temple Grandin - Thinking in Pictures, 2006

You will help your autistic employee to succeed if you:

  • Train and develop the individual for their exceptional abilities – even if these don’t relate to their current assignment
  • Look for where the individual can deliver the most value to the company
  • Be clear and specific – explain exactly what you need, ideally in writing, so your employee can go back to your instructions for reassurance
  • Meet regularly and often – so that you can work on any issues that arise promptly. Many autistic people will struggle if issues are not addressed.
  • Be aware that many autistic people have been bullied - they may be very sensitive to criticism as a result. Bullying happens in workplaces as well as in schools and they may need help to resolve issues that arise
  • Adapt the sensory environment – work with the autistic person to create an environment where they can work well.
  • Create predictability and structure – For example, offer an allocated desk, rather than hot desking and diarise regular meetings.
  • Provide support for transitions – many autistic people struggle with change so provide support and plan changes in advance
  • Explain office etiquette – be very clear about the unwritten rules of your workplace
  • Provide a mentor make sure that they are trained in understanding autism and set a regular time and place to meet.
  • Provide autism training for all staff – to reduce the chance of misunderstandings with colleagues. But do not tell other members of your staff about an autistic person's disclosure unless they consent.
  • Provide reassurance in stressful situations - many autistic people are especially meticulous and will struggle if things aren’t completely correct
  • Problem-solve together – When issues arise, work together to solve them and build capability.

Reasonable adjustments and management 

The key to successfully managing an autistic employee is by responding to their specific needs, as you would with any other employee. Just as people and roles change over time, so will any adjustments that you make for individual employees so this should be the subject of an ongoing dialogue.

Don’t share an employee’s autistic diagnosis with other staff unless they consent

Consider the possibility that there may need to be adjustments made during your management conversations:

  • Training and development – This includes training autistic employees for their strengths, and also training all staff for neurodiversity sensitivity.

  • Clarification and specification – Be clear and specific with any instruction or information. Ideally put this in writing. Reducing vagueness in your instructions or memos will benefit all employees!

  • Communication –Organise regular meetings with your employees to make check in with their progress and how they are adjusting to their workplace. Communicating can allow you to quickly address newly arisen issues, and problem solve together with your staff.

  • Adaptation of the sensory environment – Create an environment where an employee feels physically comfortable, this include adjustments to reduce sensory sensitivities.

  • Consistency and routine – Such adjustments include making sure that events or meetings don’t change time unexpectedly, allowing an autistic employee to consistently work in the same way in the same place, and keeping a regular and easily accessible schedule for working hours.

  • Flexibility ­– Some of your processes and standards can become barriers to autistic employees. Some of the easiest adjustments you can make are being flexible about things like working hours, location, and dress.

  • Support during transitions – Many autistic people struggle with change. When transition is unavoidable, you may need to provide additional adjustment to support autistic employees.

  • Support with etiquette – It’s important to make sure autistic employees are aware of, and understand workplace standards, written or otherwise.

  • Mentoring – Some support can come from providing interested autistic employees with a mentor who they feel comfortable asking for help. Consider offering specialist training for employees who are interested in being mentors.

  • Reassurance – Sometimes, autistic employees need somewhere to turn for emotionally draining or stressful situations. You may be able to provide relief for those situations.

  • Career planning – help them to see and make connections.

When considering adjustments, there will always be situations where an adjustment would be impossible or unreasonable. For instance, an autistic employee taking orders from customers at a food venue would not be able to wear ear defenders.

It may be easier to think of reasonable adjustments as removing barriers as an opportunity to improve an autistic employee’s ability to demonstrate their strengths