Neurodiverse workers can bring a lot to the table. They construct a sizable chunk of the working population but are also woefully underserved in the employment stakes. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics found that only 1 in 5 (21.7%) of autistic adults in the UK are in any form of employment, meaning they face some of the highest unemployment amongst disabled groups.
This is a crying shame considering how much many autistic individuals have to give. Autistic individuals can be up to 140% more productive than neurotypical staff when placed in a role that suits them well.
Whether it’s due to harmful stereotypes or outmoded ideas of what working life “should” be like, many employers struggle to get to grips with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Yet employing a neurodivergent employee can be a great investment. They may simply need a few adaptations – not necessarily huge ones – in order to perform at their best.
Though we’re going to be discussing autistic people in this piece, it’s important to recognise that neurodiversity is exactly that: diversity. There is no single way that autism affects those with the condition – some people may need extra support in one area, some may need help elsewhere, and some may not need huge amounts of help at all.
Additionally, as a little disclaimer, this is not medical or scientific advice, it’s just presented as advice to help managers and employers understand the needs of their autistic colleagues a little better; and perhaps, it’ll encourage more companies to welcome autistic applicants into the fold.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that can impair an individual’s ability to communicate, socialise, and generally interact with the world around them. As a “spectrum condition” it affects different people in vastly different ways and to different degrees.
The Benefits of Hiring Autistic Team Members
No two autistic individuals are ever the same, though many show above-average skill levels in the below areas:
- Their Creativity and Innovation – True innovation comes from an ability to solve problems, and autistic people are naturally equipped to think in original ways. Whether it’s due to their stereotypical attention to detail or simply the fact that they’ve spent their lives navigating a world that is largely not built with their needs in mind, the myth that autistic people aren’t creative is one well overdue for busting.
- Their Attention and Focus – Many autistic individuals can concentrate intently, dedicating sustained, single-minded attention to one task. Many have incredible attention to detail, with a real skill for spotting errors, patterns, or anomalies that may pass neurotypical people by completely.
- Their Intense, Specific Interests – Autistic people’s interests are often felt intensely and with an all-encompassing passion. If their work and interests overlap, then as long as they aren’t neglecting their other needs, this could lead to a naturally motivated and eager worker.
- Their Conscientious Nature – Many autistic people feel things deeply, even if they don’t or can’t show it. Some even experience increased levels of empathy, reliability, and honesty.
- Their Logical Minds – The logical, attentive ways in which autistic minds work make them well set up for work in tech fields. Autistic minds often struggle with ambiguity and nuance, but tech either works or it doesn’t!
How to Create an Inclusive Workplace for Autistic Workers
Sadly, many factors of the “usual” recruitment processes tend to alienate neurodivergent individuals of all kinds. Yet there are numerous things that employers can do to make the process more accessible to autistic applicants, which we’ve already seen great success with over at our talent partner, Opus, and across our own attraction and assessment processes here at _nology.
Recruiting accessibly starts as early as choosing the right language for your job advertisements and descriptions. Describe the job precisely, identifying crucial skills needed to excel in the role. It’s a great opportunity to strip down your own expectations from a role – what do you really need to see from applicants?
Also, omit vague, blanket characteristics like ‘team player’ and ‘good communicator’ as this may dissuade skilled autistic candidates who feel they have limitations in those areas. Never use jargon, vague language, or metaphors as this may exclude autistic individuals as well.
Provide crystal clear, unambiguous guidance on how to apply for the job, such as “To apply for this role, please send your CV and a cover letter to [email address]” or “To apply for this role, please email [email address] to request a link to our application form”.
Ensure any application forms or correspondence throughout the recruitment process is presented in plain English – the Plain English Campaign have numerous guides about writing in clear, unambiguous language. Make sure that application forms provide clear directions on what information is needed to answer each question. Provide a generous, yet defined, word limit when asking for ‘free form’ answers.
Encourage applicants to share ways that you can make the application or interview process more accessible for them. This isn’t just useful for autistic applicants, it can be useful for other applicants too such as wheelchair users or people with dyslexia.
Attending a job interview can be an uncertain experience at the best of times, so aim to minimise any unwelcome surprises and set a few expectations ahead of time. When inviting applicants to interview, provide clear directions to your premises, with a map and a photograph of the front of the building if possible.
Clearly communicate where they will need to go when they arrive for their interview, who to ask for, and what will happen. Some neurodiverse individuals may be assisted by having the interview questions in advance – you could even provide photos and names of the interviewers too!
Your interviewing panel should avoid abstract “what if” questions. For example, rather than asking the hypothetical “Do you think you’ll be able to [do X task]?” ask a much more certain “In your previous employment, what experience did you have with [X task]?” Also, ask one question at a time to avoid confusion.
Interviews are stressful, and sometimes quite limiting. With this in mind, you may want to think about ways you can replace the traditional interview altogether. Suitability for technical roles can be judged through skills-based assessments like those available through providers like GeekTastic. If it’s available to you, you could even offer a short “work trial” to gauge the person’s ability in situ.
For example, Dell Technologies recently implemented a system, focused on autistic applicants, that forgoes the traditional interview; instead, they invited people for a two-week assessment, followed by a 12-week internship.
If you are based in the UK, you might want to explore the National Autistic Society’s Autism at Work programme that supports organisations in recruiting and working with autistic talent.
When a new employee comes on board, it can be nerve-wracking for both the new employee and their team! However, onboarding an autistic team member needn’t be any more tense than welcoming anyone else.
On their first day, confidentially ask your new hire about what allowances you can put in place to make them more comfortable and productive. Leave the door open to new input from them as you progress together – there may be allowances that only become apparent as time goes on.
Trust is an important part of being a good employer. An autistic new hire may feel self-conscious about disclosing their autism in the workplace, so don’t tell everyone about the person’s autism or their required adaptations without their explicit permission in each instance.
Adaptations shouldn’t just be directly related to their work – your new hire should feel some autonomy around creating an environment that is most soothing for their senses. Sound, smells, temperature, lighting, draughts, and other sensations can be highly distracting for autistic people, so they may be more comfortable if they are able to move around the office or work from home. They may prefer screens around their desk or noise-cancelling headphones to make their surroundings feel more calming. Sometimes, autistic minds need certainty, so if you rely on hotdesking, consider giving them a designated space.
Do your research on autism and other such conditions, but always be led by each individual about their needs. Autism at Work has a great quote: “First and foremost, the autistic person is the expert of their own brain.”
Onboarding is an overwhelming experience for many of us but autistic workers often struggle to absorb information all in one go, especially if it’s presented verbally. Consider providing written instructions alongside onboarding and training, so the team member has something they can refer back to if they become overwhelmed or simply can’t digest any more in a single sitting.
Be mindful that many autistic people prefer direct, precise information over fluff, especially when it comes to instructions they have to follow. Breaking complex procedures down into manageable, bite-size tasks is likely to benefit everyone, but especially your autistic team members.
Many autistic individuals like certainty, so be open to providing a structured timeline for their onboarding and orientation phase – provided you are able to keep to it.
Your new hire should know who they can talk to about their work and adaptations; whether that’s their direct manager, a specific person in HR, or a diversity champion within your organisation. If you are happy for them to decide for themselves about creating their own minor adaptations, communicate this clearly to them too.
It should also be made clear who the individual needs to report to for certain work tasks, especially if they are to report to different managers about different things. Also, consider providing set deadlines and parameters for their work as many autistic workers respond well to well-defined goalposts.
With the autistic person’s permission, they may find it useful to have an assigned buddy. This could be a patient, welcoming individual in a similar role who can be on hand to answer questions and guide the new hire in their first steps. (In fact, a buddy system is great for neurotypical hires too!)
The initial ‘getting to know you’ period is often the most fraught stage for both employers and new recruits. However, there are still things to consider as you work alongside and develop autistic team members.
Though this should go without saying, always continue to support any adaptations and tweak them if the employee feels the need. Check in with them regularly to see if anything else can be done to help.
There’s one thing that needs to be addressed in a guide like ours: autistic fatigue and burnout. In short, being autistic is an overwhelmingly tiring experience. So, therefore, employers should feel open to providing autistic employees with generous, regular breaks throughout the day if that’s an adaptation that suits them. Also, consider that an autistic individual may need additional time off for medical appointments relating to their condition, so this should be accounted for as part of a disability leave policy.
Sometimes, sensory distraction, executive dysfunction issues, and autistic fatigue can cause autistic workers to not perform at their best. Autism Hampshire suggests relaxing triggers around errors and sick leave to help level the playing field for autistic employees. If poor performance continues, don’t immediately instigate disciplinary action – seek to understand why it’s happening and support them to get back to their “A game”.
When it comes to role development, training, or promotion prospects, always play to the employee’s strengths. If they are engaged in a particular task and they excel at it, they may be open to further developing their skills in that area through formal training. Nobody likes it when their employer shoves “a square peg into a round hole” and makes a role or training decision that doesn’t vibe with them – this is especially true of autistic individuals.
When it comes to the social side of work, always give autistic employees the option to be included in things like group lunches or office parties. Be sympathetic to their need for certainty when communicating plans and respect that a “no” is a “no”!
When an autistic individual is in a role that suits them, there is truly no stopping them. Going back to our stats from the beginning – that autistic people can be up to 140% more productive than their neurotypical colleagues when working in a role that suits them well, but only 1 in 5 (21.7%) of autistic adults in the UK are in any form of employment. We can’t help but feel there’s a puzzle piece many businesses are missing here.
Sadly, many of our “traditional” work processes – including recruitment, onboarding, management, and training – are built for neurotypical brains. And the recent #WorkFromHome phenomenon has shown that even some of those time-worn traditions don’t work for everyone – and that they can be turned on their head.
So how do we make things better? Well, we can band together as businesses and work to make workplaces more inclusive for all. Workplaces should examine their approach to inclusion across all fronts to include neurodiverse, disabled, LGBTQIA+, and minority ethnic workers in all areas of business. There’s unity in diversity, and the future is in our power.
Neurodiversity is “the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome”. Those with neurodivergent brains are therefore part of the diverse patchwork of humanity. Just as you would provide mobility aids for those with a physical impairment, neurodivergent people need accommodations too – they’re just a little less obvious sometimes.
- Employing autistic people: a guide for employers – an incredibly in-depth guide to employing autistic individuals, published by the National Autistic Society.
- Making Workplaces Autism-Friendly – a handy list of suggestions to help make workplaces more inclusive, provided by Autism Hampshire.
- What Is Neurodiversity? – A great article about neurodiversity, written by autistic neurodiversity scholar John Elder Robison.
- ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) – ACAS are a UK-based public body who provide impartial advice to employers and employees about all things employment rights and best practice.
- Genius Within CIC – Genius Within are a British non-profit who provide information and advisory services around neurodiverse conditions.
- JAN (The Jobs Accommodation Network) – JAN is a US-based organisation who provide advice and assistance about job accommodations and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
IncludeAbility – An initiative created by the Australian Human Rights Commission to boost employment opportunities for those with disabilities. See their guide for employers and resources for individuals with disabilities.