Communicating with Autistic People in the Workplace

Why is it so important to learn more about how to support people with autism in the workplace?

Individuals with autism have difficulty with social communication and interaction.  This includes trouble with understanding non-verbal communication (eye contact, body language), elements of verbal communication (non-literal phrases, vague statements, convoluted statements), and environmental stimuli (certain kinds of environmental noise, blinking lights / screensavers.  Many adults with autism are capable of working and provide a unique skill set; yet, only 22% of adults with autism are employed full-time.  One reason for this low percentage is the discrimination that people with autism may experience in the workplace.

People with autism who don’t receive support from their colleagues and employers and face significant disadvantages.  A lot of employers may not have a good sense of what people with autism can do, so they often overlook those with autism.  Studies have shown that 46% of the adults with autism who are employed full-time are over-educated or exceed the level of skills necessary for their position.  Employers may have a bias about what people with autism can do and may underestimate their ability; therefore, employers must become educated on how to cultivate a considerate and inclusive environment so people with autism can not only feel comfortable but can thrive.  The first step towards best utilizing the skill set of employees with autism starts with establishing effective communication skills in the workplace.

How can you create a more accessible work environment for employees with autism?

Stimuli in the work environment can be loud and overwhelming which may be difficult for those with autism to navigate.  By making a few small changes, it is possible to create a friendlier and more inclusive approach to communication.

  • Designate quiet work rooms to eliminate distractions.  Installing noise-canceling materials such as noise panels or carpeting, as well as providing noise-canceling headphones will assist with this.
  • Offering dimmer lighting, flexible scheduling, and an adjustable desk.  Providing accommodations to your employees reduces overwhelming stimuli and gives them the opportunity to modify their environment to what makes them the most comfortable and productive.
  • Use a softer and more direct form of communication. To avoid confusion, use literal terms and be straightforward.
  • Host training sessions among the staff to demonstrate effective communication skills, understanding, and empathy.  Including team-building exercises allows for the team to be more intentional in their words and actions.
  • Create a safe and collaborative space in which employees can share their experiences and perspectives on what does and does not work regarding workplace communication.  The goal is to ensure that every employee becomes more intentional and considerate during interactions in and out of the workplace.  The BlueCross BlueShield of Michigan outlines some good guidelines for working with autistic employees below:

 

What can you do to make an autistic colleague feel more comfortable and engage with others?

  • Avoid eye contact if they do not appear comfortable making eye contact themselves.
  • Understand that they have no control over their flat affect (no change in tone, fixed or diminished response in facial expression).
  • Listen patiently and be tolerant. An individual with autism may be extremely interested in some things but not in others, so be considerate about what they choose to share with you.
  • Introduce structure and outline workplace expectations to reduce confusion and establish what is and is not acceptable.
  • Reduce distractions by hosting a meeting virtually.

What are some dos and don’ts when communicating with an employee who has autism?

Do’s:

  • Modify your communication style and language if it appears that the individual does not understand. Start by simplifying your instructions to make them clearer and space out the information you provide.
  • Ask follow up questions if you misunderstand their questions and support team members in taking turns in the conversation.
  • Use visuals when addressing changes to their routine. This aids them in adjusting to a situation that they may find challenging.
  • Visuals should also be used to aid in explaining directions in general. While verbal communication may not be retained fully in that instant, visual information can be referred to over time and provide a refresher on the tasks at hand.
  • Continue to communicate with the individual despite unusual eye contact or body language.
  • Understand that repetitive behavior may be a response to strong feelings that your autistic employee is experiencing. This may include rocking their body or flapping their hands when they are anxious or excited.

Don’ts:

  • Use non literal or unclear meanings such as metaphors, idioms, humor, or phrases that may have multiple meanings depending on the context.
  • Ask open-ended or rhetorical questions which may be overwhelming for some.
  • Provide multi-step instructions, especially if the individual is in an overstimulating area or is distracted.
  • Ignore the individual or pretend they are not there. This also includes when the individual may be having difficulties with non-verbal communication such as eye contact or gestures.
  • Change the routine without warming or offering support to cope with the change.
  • Ask the individual to stop performing repetitive behavior.

 

What are some recommended jobs for those with autism?

Many people with autism are very capable and have high attention to detail.  While many people associate autism with intellectual impairments, it is important to remember that the majority of people with autism have average to above average intelligence.  And, like any other group of people, autistic people have a wide range of interests, strengths, and abilities.  People with autism may thrive in jobs that require attention to detail (such as accountants, paralegals) and/or require the ability to think systematically (such as engineers, plumbers, computer programmers).  For more information on jobs that may hone an individual with autism’s skills, follow this link.

 

Why is it so important to participate in the workforce as a person with autism?

Participating in the workforce instills a sense of accomplishment and provides an environment for autistic people to practice social and practical skills consistently.  A job cultivates new experiences and allows the individual to get out of their bubble, which will improve their quality of life.  And lastly, a job will provide a person with autism a greater degree of independence and financial security than they would otherwise be able to have.

 

Resources

https://www.childrensresourcegroup.com/the-dos-and-donts-of-talking-with-people-on-the-autism-spectrum/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2023/05/16/fostering-quieter-inclusive-and-autism-friendly-communication-in-the-workplace/?sh=42d4abee171a

https://www.forbes.com/sites/dorieclark/2014/09/29/what-you-need-to-know-about-working-with-colleagues-on-the-autism-spectrum/?sh=1cf2e4e74fec

https://www.mibluesperspectives.com/stories/inclusion-diversity/supporting-employees-with-autism-in-the-workplace

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8125785/

https://researchautism.org/oaracle-newsletter/developing-communication-skills-for-the-workplace/

https://www.springhealth.com/blog/workplace-where-autistic-employees-can-flourish

https://thespectrum.org.au/autism-strategy/autism-strategy-communication/