Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition where someone’s brain works differently than what’s typical. It can lead to challenges in social situations or with speech and language. It can also present difficulties in the workplace, including for those managing autistic employees.
Plenty of people with ASD lead normal lives, and many go through life without a diagnosis until they’re an adult. This is in part due to old-fashioned assumptions and stereotypes about autism.
There are lots of incorrect stereotypes that cause people to make assumptions and treat autistic people differently.
But you can’t spot someone who has autism just because they walked down the street and wouldn’t make eye contact, or they didn’t understand a joke. It’s not as simple as a lack of social skills or always taking things literally.
There are hundreds of symptoms, and some are more prevalent than others. If you feel – or know – that you’re managing one or more autistic employees, here’s some advice on how to work with them, support them, and keep them happy and engaged in the workplace.
Don’t make assumptions
ASD can manifest differently in different people. The best way you can ensure you’re supporting someone as much as possible is to do your research.
Don’t make assumptions that they can do this or that because someone else you know with ASD can. It’s not that simple or that black and white.
ASD is often misinterpreted or misdiagnosed. Scientific research and understanding of some of the rarer or more nuanced symptoms is only just beginning to emerge.
Understanding the nuances that come with these conditions is really important if you want to be supportive when managing autistic employees.
You may also find that some employees exhibit traits you think make them autistic, but they haven’t disclosed a diagnosis. This could be because they don’t have one, they’re unaware of their symptoms, or they’re uncomfortable sharing their diagnosis with colleagues. That doesn’t mean you can’t still make accommodations, though.
There’s no downside to finding ways to work that empower employees to be the best and happiest versions of themselves.
Listening is an important part of people management. It’s also the only way you’ll learn what accommodations you could make to equip your employee to reach – and maybe even exceed – their potential.
Even if they don’t know what they need, recognizing the challenges they face could help you both find solutions.
Or perhaps you’ve helped an employee with a similar problem in the past. This could provide a basis for suggestions of what could work for this individual, too.
Learn the language
The language around ASD and neurodiversity in general can be hard to understand if it’s completely new to you. There’s no reason you can’t learn, though.
Taking the time to learn it shows your employees that you don’t just say you care about their wellbeing, you actually mean it.
Sometimes, when we’re saying something we don’t want to say, we can tiptoe around the topic, or use euphemisms. This can be problematic as the key message can get lost in the sea of everything else we’ve said.
Be mindful of how you say something, but be clear when you do speak. Everyone involved in the conversation will have a greater understanding of the key points. Plus, they’ll feel happier with the agreed-upon outcomes.
Give specific instructions
Giving employees the freedom to make their own decisions about how they grow in their role, and what their role entails, is important to some businesses.
But this can be challenging for neurodivergent employees. These individuals often need clear guidelines to help them know what’s expected of them and when.
Some employees who don’t understand the instructions may feel uncomfortable speaking up about it. As a result, they can end up suffering in silence and will be less efficient in their role.
If you want to give them more freedom, ask them what they’d like to achieve. Talk to them about where they see themselves fitting into the business.
If that doesn’t help, consider what their strengths and areas of interest are. You’ll get far more out of neurodivergent employees by playing to their strengths than by forcing them to do tasks that they find challenging, or which cause them to disengage.
You know those ice breakers that are often forced on us at the start of team-building activities but that nobody really likes? Those are even worse for people with ASD.
Instead of forcing everyone to speak in a controlled environment, find a more natural way to involve them in conversation. You could ask them for their opinion, for example. This makes them feel valued and included.
Sometimes, people need time to digest something before a meeting. So give them some time to think on big discussion topics before they come up, or let them mull it over after the meeting and before a decision is made. Not everyone thinks well on the spot.
Another way you can make them feel more comfortable in meetings is to ensure they have a pen to fiddle with, or a fidget spinner. Many people with autism ‘stim’ (i.e. self-stimulate) as a way to self-soothe, and playing with pens is a common one.
Fiddling, fidgeting, and doodling can help everyone to engage during meetings. This makes us more likely to retain what we’ve heard, whether we’re neurodivergent or not.
Managing autistic employees doesn’t have to be difficult. Neurodivergent team members can be great assets to a business—if they’re allowed to work in a way that complements how they think.
Forcing them to work in a set way can backfire and mean they disengage. This can make them less productive, unhappy in their role, and lead them to leave without ever fulfilling their potential.
Supporting neurodivergent employees, on the other hand, can make teams more efficient, creative, and productive.
If you’re looking to build a more inclusive and supportive environment for all team members, regardless of neurodivergence, check out Workrowd. Our platform offers a one-stop shop for marketing, managing, and measuring all your employee events, groups, and programs. We make it easy for employees to see everything they can get involved in from day one, no matter where or when they work. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to learn more.