Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), often called autism, is a developmental condition that can affect how a person perceives and interacts with the world around them. Although experiences of the disorder vary from person to person, individuals with ASD may typically struggle with social cues and interaction, making the workplace a potentially challenging environment for them to navigate.

Work-related challenges for employees with autism

Although autism is now commonly considered a type of neurodiversity, or a different way of functioning neurologically, there are barriers that people living with ASD may face when it comes to employment.

Social cues, communication, and interaction

 

Some individuals living with autism may have a hard time reading and responding to social cues. It may be that someone with ASD doesn’t understand when to let others talk or that their tone of voice or volume of speaking may be different from other people’s. 

 

Social communication in the workplace is an important part of building relationships with colleagues. Those who process information differently may find these interactions difficult, they may also struggle with other activities that rely on communication such as taking part in team meetings, collaborative problem solving, and conflict resolution. 

Hypersensitivity to sensory stimulation

 

People with ASD can experience sensitivity—or indeed hypersensitivity—to their environment. This means that sensory experiences such as sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste may easily become overwhelming, or cause distress for someone with autism. 

 

In a busy working environment, being able to selectively filter out incidental noises such as coworkers talking may present a particular challenge to those with ASD.  

Interviewing and hiring 

Not only can aspects of the working environment present challenges for people living with autism, but progressing through traditional interviewing and hiring processes to gain employment can be problematic too.  

Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests that, in 2020, people of working age with autism experienced the highest unemployment rate of those living with a disability in the U.K. In the same year in the U.S., it is estimated that around 85% of people with autism were experiencing unemployment.

Interview processes that rely heavily on socialization and communication skills can put candidates with autism at a disadvantage and may not appropriately convey the qualities that they can bring to the prospective role.

What laws protect employees with autism?

Discriminating against employees with autism is illegal in the United States, under the federal Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Businesses that have 15 or more workers cannot discriminate against workers with autism—or any disability—in training, hiring, promotion, job applications, or any other part of work.

The ADA requires workplaces to offer reasonable accommodations to employees with autism, to enable them to carry out the duties of their role. Although the accommodations necessary will likely differ depending on an individual’s needs, they can include offering noise-canceling headphones, dimmer desk lamps, or some added time to process information during meetings. 

The benefits of a diverse workforce

As with any other employee, providing the right working environment for someone with ASD to carry out their duties can allow them to flourish in their role. Ensuring that employees are well-matched with jobs that play to their specific skills and qualities is beneficial for both organizations and the individuals they employ.  

One organization in the U.S. found that hiring candidates for a specific tech role through a neurodiversity program resulted in the newly hired employees being ‘90% to 140% more productive than employees who had been there five or 10 years.’ 

In addition to matching candidates to the right role and providing them with an accessible work environment, it’s also important that neurodiverse employees are appropriately supported by management staff who understand their strengths, as well as where they potentially face challenges at work.

How to create an inclusive workplace for neurodiverse employees

The barriers that employees with autism may face at work can often be as much about a lack of understanding from employers and colleagues as it is about their own personal challenges. Creating a workplace that is accessible and inclusive of all employees will mitigate many of the difficulties that neurodiverse staff members have to deal with.

  • Change the hiring process: Rather than relying on traditional interviews, which may focus on eye contact and small talk that can be challenging for neurodiverse talent, consider an interview process with skills-based tasks. This may help to take the pressure off of the social interaction element of the interview whilst still showcasing the candidate’s talents.
  • Disability and diversity training: Promoting awareness and preventing bias is crucial at all levels of an organization. Ensuring that members of senior leadership, management, and the general workforce have access to high-quality training around disabilities in the workplace can help prevent discrimination. When offering training, it’s also important to be inclusive of a range of conditions, not just autism, to provide a broad understanding of diversity in the workforce, as well as to prevent individual employees from feeling singled out.
  • Create an autism-friendly work environment: For workers with ASD, providing a quiet place to work can help them focus and avoid sensory overstimulation. In an open-concept office, desk partitions, noise-canceling headphones, and adjustable lighting may help employees with autism filter out overwhelming stimuli. If it’s unrealistic that the general work environment can meet those needs, providing a quiet zone that employees can easily access may also be effective.
  • Provide structure for tasks and processes: Offering clear task descriptions with a specific start and end time can help to provide structure for neurodiverse employees. Having processes in place for often-completed tasks and keeping instructions next to devices and work equipment can be beneficial too. A defined structure for work activities can help to cut down on multitasking, which is something that employees with autism may find stressful. 
  • Offer remote work options: Flexibility with working hours and locations can be beneficial for all employees, but particularly for those with a disability. Being flexible with where and when your employees work can help them manage their condition better, as well as have a positive impact on productivity.

When creating an inclusive workplace designed to attract and retain workers, it’s important to consider employees with autism and neurodiversity. Many of the adjustments which can make a working environment better for those with autism can also result in a more comfortable workspace for your other employees.