How can Autistic staff be better supported in the workplace?

How can Autistic staff be better supported in the workplace?

I was provided the questions of: What are the best ways to broach the subject of autism at work, and how can we have better conversations and provide more support for autistic employees? However, to answer such questions, we have to first consider what it is like to be an autistic person is the workforce. With only 15% of autistic people being employed, there is evidence to show that the workforce is not autism and neurodivergence friendly. However, with more knowledge and understanding of the autistic experience, hopefully, comes more suited environments and more autistic people showing their skills and abilities in the workforce. On the flip side, does that also open up autistic people for further discrimination and isolation, as we are often the ones who are seen to need to change, to fit into the world around us that is not designed for or by us. So how can we make a workforce that is designed for us, or even by us?

Working as an autistic person can be extremely difficult, as the workplace is often full of overstimulation, many social interactions, and confusing workplace instructions and expectations. Unfortunately for many autistic people, the workplace is not a suitable environment and one many cannot engage in, despite having the appropriate skills and capabilities to complete the work. As an autistic person, it is often highly clear to me that my way of thinking is different to those around me, with many looking down on the way I see things, rather than seeing the strengths and skills I can bring. For many, the fact that I cover my ears at the beeping of the Eftpos machine, cry at the sound of the fire alarm battery needing changing, and leave due to the smell of the food cooking in the kitchen, is too different and a means of criticism and at times isolation. All leading to feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and disconnect within the work environment.

Being autistic can result in many challenges in the workplace. The main ones I experience consistently include:

  • Differences in communication with colleagues, leading to people often stating that we can be “rude” or “disrespectful” despite not having any intention as such. This then increases my social anxiety and rejection sensitivity, feeling as though I have done something wrong, when I have done my best at communicating effectively.
  • Difficulties with following the often vague or quick instructions provided, as I often need more in-depth understanding and a break down of tasks, or at least seek clarification and understanding of the tasks I need to finish. Open ended tasks or vague instructions result in high levels of anxiety and a fear of failure within the task.  
  • Consistent changes of routines and schedules, and the need for ongoing flexibility.  
  • Overstimulating sensory environments such as fluorescent lighting, loud or sudden noises, the smell of candles or food, and people talking consistently.
  • Difficulty with transitioning between tasks, or not being provided time for transitions.
  • Consistent interruptions often mean that I can struggle to get back on task and find myself feeling extremely lost with my work. It often results in me feeling annoyed and angry at the interruption, and struggling to regulate my tone of voice, and communication.
  • Executive functioning challenges with planning, organisation, memory, and attentional skills (made worse with my co-occurring diagnosis of ADHD).
  • Anxiety and emotional regulation challenges from emotional, sensory, cognitive, and social overwhelm, which has resulted in meltdowns and shutdowns within the work place.
  • Feelings of being misunderstood, isolated, different to colleagues, with limited connection.
  • Feelings of high expectations and the increase in perfectionistic tendencies, can lead to increased anxiety and burnout, and often drives much of my workday. I can often hide the anxiety (masking) but unfortunately going home after this is exhausting.
  • Challenges with consistent burnout and co-occurring mental health diagnoses due to the need for masking and camouflaging throughout the day, as well as managing and trying to cope with all the above challenges.

I have been fortunate to find a workplace that was open to hearing about my diagnosis, and how they could best support me. It is important to note though that this does not make work smooth sailing, and does not get rid of the daily overwhelm and anxiety, but it does make the workplace less scary, and less isolating. The greatest thing a workplace could do for me would be to sit and listen, understand the way that I see this world, the way my mind works and what it needs to be able to perform at its best. As well as using the words and terminology that I use to address myself; using words that show skills and strengths, not disorders and weaknesses. For example, I come from a neurodiversity affirming model, and prefer to refer to myself as “autistic” rather than “person with autism”. It is important to ask and address each person as such, in their preferred language. I understand that not all accommodations can be made, however, having a conversation and problem solving to see how the workplace could be best suited to me, allowing me to show the skills I have, when I am calm and less overstimulated. However, if overstimulation, or emotional dysregulation was to occur, having plans and support in place. Knowing where to go, who to talk to, and who will be a safe place to express myself. Some of the accommodations I personally use at work include:  

  • Modifications to uniforms due to textile based sensory challenge.  
  • Keeping the same room and being able to decorate the way I like.  
  • Use of sensory tools such as headphones and fidget items.  
  • Specific chair / seating options.  
  • Consistent structure and routine.  
  • Support with making phone calls and contacting external people.  
  • Being able to text in sick as to reduce anxiety of making a phone call.  
  • Dedicated time to study as to reduce burnout.  
  • Being able to work from home when needed (as communicated).  
  • Clear expectations to be provided, preferably in writing.  
  • Feedback to be provided in writing, and with a conversation due to anxiety.   
  • Request of different smells and candles within the main office. 
  • Reduced need for eye contact and increased understanding of autistic communication style.  
  • Use of sensory equipment when overstimulated.  
  • Specific people to speak to or go to when overwhelmed (e.g., Manager or CEO) – based off comfort levels not seniority.  
  • Understanding of communication when asking for clarity (i.e., asking “why” is not defiance, but rather a question of why the task is important for contextual information that I need to complete it, asking for clarification is not being rude or defiant, but trying to understand something that I found vague).

Other accommodations that may be utilised include:

  • The need for a written structure or step by step instructions.
  • Having a support person to help with learning the role.
  • Starting with one task before moving and learning the next, developing a sense of mastery.
  • Reduced case load, or task load to reduce burnout.
  • Assistive technology such as dictation, text to speech software, or digital highlighters.
  • If shifts are provided, having clear routines and structure, possibly having consistent days or times for work.
  • A timetable that is suitable with public transport or transport options.
  • Modification of uniform expectations (e.g., different shoes, different collar on shirt)
  • Use of non-verbal communication devices, such as written communication, or AAC devices (e.g., iPad).
  • Allowance of greater breaks to reduce sensory overwhelm.

It is important to recognise that not all accommodations will be useful for each person, and everyone will have different things that they find useful and as though they will be able to incorporate them into the work day. It is important to note here as well, that asking for accommodations, and voicing concerns or challenges is extremely difficult. Many autistic people, including myself, have been criticised and put down for years for being different, or not being able to meet the typical standards in life, so asking for help, being openly different is challenging, especially in a workplace where there are consequences to not doing things how others prefer (e.g., being isolated, losing a job, not having money). It is important though! It is important to feel genuine, to be respected for the work or the abilities you do have, and it is important to be seen for who you are!

Generally, I think the important factors when considering how to support autistic people in the workplace came back to:  

  • Understanding and knowledge of autism and co-occurring diagnoses (e.g., anxiety and ADHD). 
  • Communication with the autistic person around their preferences and needs. 
  • Openness to autistic communication style. 
  • Understanding of masking and camouflaging abilities and how to support a more genuine autistic experience.
  • Willingness to move away from deficit-based model of autism and seeing people’s strengths and diversity.   
  • Willingness and openness of implementation of appropriate accommodations and supports.  
  • Seeing each person as separate rather than their diagnosis. Each autistic person is going to need different accommodation and levels of support in the workplace. It is best to understand each person and their needs.

Written by:

Stephanie Watts (She/Her – AuDHDer)

Psychologist | Autism Advisory and Support Service 

PhD Candidate | Western Sydney University 

B.Psych (Hons.), MAppPsych, MAPS

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