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How managers can support autistic employees

“Unfortunately, few organisations provide resources to managers to help support autistic employees.”

About 45 per cent of autistic Australians report their skills are higher than those required to perform their current job, according to research by advocacy group Amaze. Despite this 20 per cent report having lost a job due to their autism.


When autistic people are not given the opportunity to utilise their skills in the workplace, a cost is incurred to the individual and broader society. In this article, I share advice on how managers can support autistic employees, enabling them to use their skills to succeed.


About one in 100 Australians are autistic, with 85 per cent of the community having a personal connection with an autistic person. Autism is a lifelong neurobiological condition that results in differences in how people think and function.


From my experience as an autistic employee, supporting other autistic staff and working in disability support, I have learned that managers who are willing to learn about autism and understand these differences are better placed to support them.


Autistic people, just like other human beings, have individual skills, perspectives and support needs. Whilst it’s important to understand autism and some of its common traits, it’s more important to get to know the individual. In saying that, I believe my advice will be helpful to managers working with autistic employees.


Support Starts by Listening


Unfortunately, few organisations provide resources to managers to help support autistic employees. Thankfully, autistic employees themselves are the best source of information on the support they require.


However, a potential barrier to autistic employees discussing their support needs is such disclosure can expose them to the risk of discrimination. In another article, I wrote about my experience navigating disclosure in the workplace.


Autistic employees often find themselves in workplaces with no other autistic colleagues or leaders. Moreover, negative preconceptions about autism can be prevalent. It can feel like the onus is on them to advocate for themselves, which is exhausting.


Managers of autistic employees who choose to disclose must listen respectfully and try to understand the individual rather than project their own impressions. Autism is a complicated neurobiological condition which manifests differently in each individual.


Trust and Honesty


Honesty is a positive characteristic of autistic people. They feel comfortable asking for help, admitting mistakes and suggesting ideas or providing constructive criticism.


Honesty is generally considered a positive trait in the workplace because it leads to greater accountability, transparency and sharing of different perspectives. However, it may also be a negative depending on the culture of a workplace.


In a workplace with a culture of fear and mistrust, even senior employees fear raising problems due to possible negative repercussions. If an autistic employee has a strong sense of justice and speaks their mind, the environment may not be conducive to their success.


Managers can make a more inclusive workplace for autistic employees by fostering a culture of trust and honesty, embodying those values and encouraging a speak up culture.


Be Open to Change


Being open to adjustments is a crucial part of an inclusive workplace. A willingness to make simple changes to processes and social expectations can create an inclusive workplace for many autistic employees.


A desire for routine is a common characteristic of autism. Unexpected changes in routine or plans can be anxiety producing. Personally, I find I can cope with changes to routine. However, routine helps me perform at my best.


If the physical environment an employee is working in changes frequently and unexpectedly, it can affect their ability to focus. While these factors may impact the ability of anyone to work effectively, the challenge is more pronounced for autistic employees.


Managers should work with autistic employees to plan their work in advance where possible. Depending on the level of autonomy or expertise, this could involve asking them their opinion on how they can best contribute to a project.


Working with them to plan their duties can help create shared clarity on expectations. Clear communication is critical in helping them succeed.


Whether you are considered a good fit in your workplace is often dependent on how you fit in socially. Unfortunately, many autistic people have trouble picking social cues or reading social interactions. They may seem rude or aloof.


For example, an autistic employee may ask their manager “why” something should be done a certain way. Some managers may view this as a challenge to their authority. However, the employee may be seeking clarity to help them perform their work and make useful suggestions.


Autistic people often view others through an egalitarian lens, treating everyone with the same level of respect, irrespective of whether they are a senior executive or a junior employee.


I recommend managers give autistic employees the benefit of the doubt if they say something that could be misinterpreted or is not in accordance with social norms.


Sensory overwhelm


Finally, some autistic people experience sensory processing difficulties. This may result in differences in how sensory information, such as light, sound and touch are perceived. For example, fluorescent lights may be distracting. Managers should take the time to explore how their work environment can be modified.


Recently I was onboarding an intern who was autistic. He was participating in a program at ANZ to help neurodiverse people get experience in the workplace.


He told me he had sensory processing difficulties and asked if he could wear noise-cancelling headphones. I said he could wear his headphones in the office and sit where he felt most comfortable.


Often the obstacle to accommodating autistic employees isn’t the feasibility but whether managers are willing to adapt. Measures such as engaging with autistic employees to plan and clarify expectations, having flexible social expectations or allowing flexibility of location may seem unnecessary to some managers.


However, they can make a significant difference to the experience of the individual to enable them to work effectively.


While every autistic person is different, managers are better placed to support if they are aware of common traits and adjustments. Autistic people are honest and ethical, have a strong work ethic and provide a different perspective in solving complex problems.


By looking at their strengths first, plus focusing on how to assist them to work at their best, managers can help them succeed.


Xavier Gunn is an analytics professional in Internal Audit at ANZ.

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