Whichever way you look at it, with only 16% of autistic people in full time paid work, and 16% part time, the employment situation for autistic people isn’t a good one. Not only is this wasted potential, it’s not fair on autistic people, who may already have been ground down by a non-inclusive working environment/recruitment process, or pushed out due to mistakes made in it.
As one of a small but significant number of autistic workers in the charity sector, as well as a new job coach in the Autism at Work programme for the National Autistic Society, I’m aware of the challenges of creating an inclusive environment as well as its tantalising opportunities too.
There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK. Every autistic person is different and will have their own strengths and challenges. Many autistic people need extra time to process information, like questions or instructions, feel intense anxiety in social situations or when faced with unexpected changes. But, with a little understanding and small adjustments to the recruitment process and workplace, autistic adults can be a real asset to all sorts of businesses.
An inclusive environment
In terms of physical environment, we’re talking about several different senses including sight, smell, sound and so on. For example, some autistic people struggle to focus when working under bright spotlights or when faced with loud and unexpected noises – or even find this painful.
There are lots of simple things employers can do to level the playing field, like introducing quiet zones where people can evade colleagues talking loudly or letting people wear noise-cancelling headphones. Mental health breaks, changes to the physical environment, or just being understanding of how different people work and recognising their talents appropriately can really help too.
You can access support via the government’s Access to Work scheme and we have lots of tips and information on our website too.
It’s not just about making physical adjustments. It’s about planning, clarity and consistency across the board. This starts from the recruitment process and asking each candidate if they need any extra information or support before the interview.
An understanding environment also involves recognising there will be people in it who play for the team and people who play in the team, which is an important distinction to make. So, I’d suggest avoiding the words ‘team player’ in job descriptions when recruiting people.
In the workplace
Diversity training can really help. If your organisation employs, or is aiming to employ, a significant number of autistic people you might consider specific training as part of your induction process. As part of our charity’s induction process, staff complete five mandatory modules of our Ask Autism online learning suite. This helps them to understand their autistic colleagues better and avoid common misunderstandings, like people on the spectrum taking things literally.
Meetings and social events
It’s always good to circulate agendas ahead of meetings, so all colleagues know what to expect, and to consider whether colleagues may prefer information or tasks to be communicated in a written form, rather than just spoken.
A typical team social normally involves everyone going to the pub after work for drinks, which many autistic people do too. However not all autistic people (and non-autistic people for that matter) enjoy the pub. This is one of the reasons we’re trialling an Autism friendly games night at our main London office, which involves bringing autistic and non-autistic people together to do calmer activities.
There aren’t enough role models for autistic people to learn from and be inspired by. It may seem obvious but if an organisation has never had an autistic staff member, it may be harder for a prospective or current autistic colleague to see how they can remain or advance in an organisation. So we should welcome it when people disclose their autism, although please remember that it takes no small degree of bravery to do this and become a standard bearer.
I hope these tips will help you create an inclusive environment, welcoming for all sorts of different minds. It’s less of an instant event and more a combination of different processes and adjustments on a journey towards a final goal. Greater inclusion means more people getting the support and understanding they need to help them excel and contribute different perspectives. So do get in touch with me if you would be interested in finding out more. Employers can also sign up to our quarterly Autistic Talent newsletter to receive free tips and resources about autism in the workplace.
And one more thing: underpinning all these adjustments is stakeholder engagement, which is a foundation for diversity and inclusion – whether for autistic people, disabled people or anyone else. For example, our charity has an Autistic Colleagues Network that provides role models and makes recommendations on ways that our workplaces can become inclusive. You and your organisation, be it a charity or any other kind of organisation, will be stronger and smarter for being inclusive.
About Leo Capella
Leo Capella is a Job Coach for the Autism at Work Program at the National Autistic Society, having worked for the charity previously as an Autism Access Specialist, and is on the autistic spectrum. This is Leo’s third professional role at the charity having been a Participation Support Officer for it around five years ago. He’s also worked at Disability Rights UK for over three years on two different campaigns. He holds a BA in Politics from The University of Essex and also has an MA in International Security from the University of Warwick.
You can find out more about autism and get information and support at www.autism.org.uk