Viola Sommer is Head of Operations at Auticon, a company which employs adults on the autistic spectrum as IT consultants. Last month, Viola outlined the business case for hiring autistic team members. In her second guest post, she explains ten ways employers can make sure their work environment accommodates for the requirements of autistic employees.
There are around 700,000 people in the UK living with autism. However, only 15% are employed full-time. As a result, many employers have little to no experience of working with an autistic team member.
For employers managing an autistic person for the first time, the best starting point may be to speak to the employee directly about what helps them be productive. Since Auticon was founded in 2011, we’ve realised that particular aspects of a work environment can have a significant impact on the degree to which autistic professionals feel comfortable and able to focus on their work.
In most cases, only minor tweaks are required. These are tweaks that can benefit not only autistic colleagues but all team members. Efficient communication and a well-structured work environment can reduce the amount of redundant work and substantially increase team satisfaction across the board.
Start by reducing sensory input wherever possible. Provide blinds, avoid neon lights and minimise disruptive background noises. While many autistic workers are very sociable and perfectly comfortable with working in open-plan offices, some may find it important to have a quiet space to retreat to.
Agree on appointments in advance. Offer a quick outline of what topics will be discussed and whether or not autistic colleagues will be required to contribute. Helping autistic colleagues feel well prepared can minimise anxiety and make meetings more accessible.
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Autistic adults appreciate consistency. Announce changes to the work environment well in advance.
Implicit social rules
Let autistic team members know of any specific social rules within your company culture. These may include whether it’s acceptable to address colleagues by their first or last name, and whether you have an open door policy or not. Do invite your autistic colleagues to join the team for break times. Don’t be offended, however, if they prefer to spend their breaks by themselves: alone time is vital for some autistic people to recuperate.
Nominate one continuous contact person. Ideally, this would be someone who is physically present on a regular basis. Provide straightforward instructions, targets, expected progress and deadlines for new tasks wherever possible. Offer support with prioritising tasks. Should urgent or more important tasks arise, it’s best to inform the employee of the updated task order.
Communicate tasks as concisely as possible: avoid ambiguity, unnecessary detail or small talk when explaining new assignments. Indicate whether a response is expected or not. If in doubt, feel free to double check whether your instructions have been understood correctly.
Avoid making assumptions about autistic colleagues. Make an effort to get to know them and their individual characteristics. Don’t assume, for instance, that all autistic people aren’t interested in social interactions. Even though this may be true in some cases, many are highly sociable in their own way.
Avoid unnecessary interruptions: autistic employees might take longer than average to regain focus on their work. Try your best to answer questions as soon as possible or let your autistic colleague know when to expect an answer. This will help maintain high levels of productivity.
Autistic professionals appreciate clear verbal or written feedback on their work performance. This is because they may find it difficult to interpret facial expressions or non-verbal cues.
Be prepared for honest feedback. Autistic employees may care about the task at hand more than social obligations and may at times be very straightforward in voicing criticism. Remember, in the vast majority of cases, they are genuinely trying to help and don’t mean to cause offence.
Ensuring your work environment is well-tailored to your employees’ needs will allow them to fully realise their potential. In our experience, the benefits significantly outweigh the costs.
Are you on the autism spectrum and have any comments or suggestions? What does an autism-friendly work environment mean to you? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email or find us on Facebook or Twitter.
Auticon is an award-winning IT consulting business. All Auticon consultants are on the autism spectrum and we pride ourselves in creating autism-friendly work environments, as well as delivering outstanding quality to our clients.
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