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How Can We Better Support Autism in the Workplace?

With only 29% of autistic people in employment, what steps can organisations take to be more supportive and inclusive? Kirsty Hamilton from Vattenfall Heat UK takes a closer look.




Alone, company policies that encourage equality, fairness of treatment, and inclusivity do not build comprehensively inclusive workplaces; there are several broader areas that employers need to address to make workplaces inclusive to autistic people: 


Office environments 

Many autistic people have sensory differences, making it challenging to process sensory stimuli. They can be over-stimulated or under-stimulated by sensory stimuli such as sound, light and touch.


For example, an autistic person may be sensitive to sound, either exhibiting over-stimulation by hearing sounds in a magnified and distorted manner, or exhibiting under-stimulation where loud sounds are particularly enjoyable or sound muffled. 


As every autistic person is different, in office environments employers can support autistic employees through a range of actions: 


  • Having different working areas in the office. Quiet areas can provide respite from louder working zones, helping to prevent over-stimulation. A range of seating areas, both open plan and private, can ensure that autistic employees have an environment available that they feel comfortable in; some autistic people need the availability of open space whilst others want the feeling of an enclosed space.  

  • Controlling the brightness of lights. This can be adjusting lighting in rooms or installing dimmable lights and blinds. Brightness of computer and television screens should also be considered with potential needs for dimmable screens. 

  • Controlling sound: This could, for example, include providing alternatives to loud hand dryers in bathrooms or having dedicated quiet working areas in the office.

  • Being mindful of decoration. Colours can have a strong influence on autistic people. Green and blue can encourage restfulness and concentration whilst yellow and red can be stimulating and distracting, impacting employees who are trying to work. Patterns can similarly be distracting so should be used thoughtfully. 

Ways of working 

  • Flexible hours. Crowds and queues can present challenging stimuli to autistic people, for example through loud noise and physical closeness. By offering employees flexible working hours, autistic employees have the option to commute earlier or later, avoiding potentially heavy stimulation from the rush hour. 

  • Providing alternatives to hot-desking. Autistic people may be averse to change, preferring routine which provides a feeling of familiarity, safety and control. To reduce stress and anxiety, alternatives to hot-desking could be provided in a work environment to give autistic employees the option of building their own space, e.g. having set desks or rolling out a desk booking system. 

  • Flexible working locations. This offers the opportunity for employees to work in environments they are more comfortable in, such as their homes or locations which are closer to the office or less stimulating. It can also help autistic employees to feel a sense of control and safety. 

 

Recruitment 

For many autistic individuals, disclosing their autism comes with risks. Not all organisations understand neurodiversity, nor what to do if that information is disclosed to them. A lack of predictability can turn into a sizeable stress factor. 


  • Use exact language. Job descriptions should use accessible and specific language, listing precise requirements instead of ‘fluffy’ terminology. For example, avoiding wording such as ‘thinking outside the box’. Similarly, interviews should avoid using vague, open-ended questions. 

  • Transparency about interviews: During the recruitment process, providing clear guidance on the interview structure and what will be needed at each stage can help to build a sense of control and safety for autistic candidates. If interviews are held in-person, information could be provided in advance to candidates, such as a description of the environment where the interview will take place and details of who will be attending. This transparency again can build a sense of control and may also highlight in advance any potentially over-stimulating or under-stimulating stimuli. 

  • Practice flexibility: Ask individual applicants if they have any specific needs and adapt the recruitment process accordingly. This could be holding an interview virtually or giving a list of questions to candidates in advance. Autistic candidates may struggle to present their capabilities in conversation. Requesting work samples or including a test allows candidates to demonstrate their capabilities rather than having to describe them. 

 

Autism affects around 168 million people around the world, with the United Kingdom having the highest rate – around 700.07 people per 100,000. While awareness is increasing, there is still much work to be done to support, accept and understand autistic people. Creating flexible adaptations in the workplace, involving our autistic colleagues in decisions and policies that affect them, and being as open and communicative as possible can only benefit all of us in the long run. 

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