10 things Employers can do to help make an ASD employee’s life more comfortable at work (and therefore get the most from them, including loyalty and productivity)
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) isn’t a great label but it does help to describe a differently-brained set of people that might need a little extra help to be their best at work. Only 15% of all diagnosed adults in UK are in work, and only 10% of those feel supported, respected and safe from ridicule at work.
This blog hopes to go someway to helping employers to understand some things they could do to improve the working environment for someone with ASD and get the very best out of a happy, comfortable and productive employee.
Interview with someone who has ASD
It will be very rare for someone with ASD to ring up a prospective employer and ask them to adjust their interview style from open-ended questions to direct questions; when that’s exactly what they need. If an interviewee is avoiding eye contact, stimming (see no.6), and/or fidgeting and might seem to struggle with that first common question “Tell me about yourself”, then you can try another tack of changing to direct questions instead. If the person relaxes before you, you know you are on the right track.
Stress for someone with ASD
Imagine a graph where those not on the spectrum live with an anxiety level daily at about 3 or 4 out of 10, so as the day progresses they can accommodate new stressful things without having a breakdown (usually) and those on the spectrum are probably living with a 8 or 9 out of 10 all day with several meltdowns along the way as life and every decision can be really stressful and pushes them over the edge easily. Managing that stress allows them to shine as they can do great quality work in a comfortable place and be themselves.
Environment for someone with ASD
For a lot of people with ASD, open plan offices provide a very challenging environment, from open or closed windows, or any challenges for the senses (see no.4) to feeling “safe” sitting with their back to the wall and being able to see the door. If moving desks for the third time this year is really stressful to the employee, ask yourself, is it really necessary? If it is possible to make someone a bit more comfortable at work, why wouldn’t you do that?
Senses for someone with ASD
There are certain distractions that can bother those on the spectrum to the point of meltdown or irritation (leading to inappropriate behaviour in the work place).
A) Sight: Direct sunlight can cause a reaction to the light, the heat and reflections on other items in the office.
B) Smells: Pungent food being cooked in microwaves or brought in at lunchtime can be really uncomfortable for someone with a sensitive nose.
C) Touch – well we all know that in the workplace touching someone else is not on unless they consent. There are some on the spectrum who hate to be touched at all, and pull away violently, (often seen as an over-dramatic response). Those that need human contact to feel accepted and might be perceived as too “touchy-feely” might need to be coached on what is appropriate in the office.
D) Taste: Probably the smallest problem in the workplace but when combined with other events contributes to elevated stress levels.
E) Sound: A clicking pen, a tapping foot, a strimmer outside the window, a ticking clock, the faint sound of music from a pair of headphones. Any number of these and more might cause distress to someone on the spectrum, often as part of an already anxious state, including overheard conversations, ringing phones, people typing and squeaky chairs!
5. Routine and Rules for someone with ASD
Many of those with ASD prefer a solid routine with clear deadlines. They are likely to be very reliable as long as the instructions have been made really clear. Be aware that some instructions can sound like orders, and because of some people having pathological demand avoidance, a choice would be the better way to present the request. e.g. Would you prefer to work on the plan today or the procurement tasks? If the plan is chosen, check in and agree that that means tomorrow the other task will be completed. They maintain a bit of control, and the tasks still get done under a verbal contract. Checking up on someone (unless checkpoints have been previously agreed) can be detrimental and take away confidence, so there’s an element of trust that needs to be forged early on in the employer/employee relationship. Sometimes someone with ASD might be a real stickler for the rules, and their superior can coach them on when it’s acceptable to bend those rules to assist with team harmony.
The Unexpected and Meltdowns for someone with ASD
With routine also comes the unexpected and it might be prudent to help team members find ways to accommodate the unexpected that might occur. In a lot of jobs there are variables that can be anticipated and perhaps a portion of the day can be allocated to the unknown that can also be used for catching up on emails, personal development or research. Lets face it no-one should be 100% allocated on any job, it’s setting you up for failure instantly. Should a meltdown occur, give that person a few moments to gather themselves as touching or talking to them could make them worse. Get to know your team members so you can anticipate future meltdowns and possibly diffuse them.
Behaviour and Stimming for someone with ASD
Behaviour is a tricky one for many who have ASD and you might see them watching other team members for cues on how to behave in a given situation. They still might misread it, so its important to let them know gently and privately that it wasn’t the right response. They might pull odd facial expressions when asked questions whilst their brain processes the information much in the way that a computer might. Stimming can be explained as physical movements that the person with ASD does that helps them to feel calm, less anxious and in control. Stimming can take the form of rocking forwards and backwards, playing with hair, or fiddling with a ring on their finger or shaking their hands like they are wet or something else. As long as it does not irritate others or impact their work, surely its acceptable to allow someone to stim as they need to; to feel comfortable and calm.
Eye contact and Language for someone with ASD
For some people with ASD eye contact is really challenging and for neurotypicals (not on the spectrum) they can appear shifty, evasive, disinterested and dishonest. The eye to eye contact is very confrontational much in the same way you wouldn’t stare at a dog or a lion and not expect a growl. Sometimes those on the spectrum might fiddle with their phone or doodle a lot or fiddle with a toy whilst listening to a presentation or instructions, this might be so that they can calm their anxious busy mind and listen wholly. It doesn’t mean they are disinterested or being rude, it probably means they are over stimulated visually or they are uncomfortable (they might be too hot, thirsty and worried about something else).
Sometimes Language might seem inappropriate or too little or too much. See no.9 for dealing with this so that they can work well within a team.
Feedback and Evaluation for someone with ASD
The key to working with someone with ASD is great evaluation and feedback. It’s really important to let the person know what is working well, so they carry on with that great work or behaviour. When the message is more of a development opportunity its important to use your words very carefully (not just for those with ASD but for everyone) and ensure that all ego and emotion are removed. Specific examples of things that haven’t worked so well, followed quickly by encouragement and support on fixing those things, including training opportunities and mentoring will make any employee feel valued, respected and rewarded with your patience and support.
Reward and Recognition for someone with ASD
Finding out how people like to be rewarded is important too as some like a quiet email or handshake from a team leader, whilst others will shine at a public recognition with a shower of applause. Some find that awful as being the centre of attention is dreadful for them and very stressful.
I know all of this sounds like a lot of work, but if you think about it, a lot of this advice can be applied to any human regardless of the way their brain processes information. For a small amount of initial effort a harmonious team, greater understanding and a productive employee can be gained by employing someone with ASD. Everyone with ASD is different just as any neurotypical person is different, they don’t conveniently fit into a box and each person will have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, just like everyone else.