Autism in the Workplace

Steven Farber
Steven Farber

Table of Contents

Including employees with an autism spectrum disorder in your diversity efforts can be extremely beneficial for your business. People on the autistic spectrum have unique strengths that can be harnessed to improve your workplace. Read on to learn how best to support employees with autism and reap the benefits of their unique strengths.

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What Is Autism in the Workplace?

With one in 68 children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it is becoming increasingly likely that you will have an employee with ASD in your workplace at some point. Autism can present itself in many different ways, so it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms so you can best accommodate and support employees who are on the spectrum. In this article, we will discuss some of the things you need to know about autism in the workplace.

Challenges of Autism in the Workplace

Autistic individuals are naturally gifted workers because of their attention to detail, concentration, and creative thinking processes. They do well with repetitive activities and research, and they tend to stay with a job after being hired. Issues surrounding ASD in the workplace can be overcome. Most problems stem from our own lack of knowledge about autism. There are two major challenges when it comes to giving an employee with ASD every chance to be successful in your workplace: social interaction and environment.

Challenge 1: Navigating Conflict and Social Cueing

People with ASD may have difficulty with social interaction. While this may occasionally be a problem for the ASD employee themselves, it is usually only problematic if the position itself requires much social interaction. This can manifest itself in several ways, such as not making eye contact, not understanding body language or personal space, or having trouble carrying on a conversation. It is important to be patient and understand that these challenges are a result of the disorder and not a lack of effort on the part of the employee.

Just like Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD), the symptoms aren’t something someone with ASD can control without a lot of effort; and even then, it’s only manageable, not preventable.

People with ASD might need additional support in navigating workplace social interactions and conflict resolution. Many people with ASD are extremely bright and have a lot to offer your company, but they might need some extra help when it comes to dealing with the day-to-day social interactions that occur in most workplaces. Individuals with ASD might typically lack neurotypical social cues such as knowing when or how to enter and exit a conversation, a lack of filter on what they say, or otherwise misunderstanding something someone else has said. Taking the time to carefully tailor your communication to the ASD employee is a great first step to increasing effective communication in this situation.

Challenge 2: Preventing Overstimulation

People with ASD may become overwhelmed by sensory input. They can have a difficult time filtering out background noise, smells, lights, or other stimuli. As a result, they might need special accommodations in order to focus on work. Accommodations made to reduce sensory overwhelm such as giving someone with ASD a specific workspace or ensuring that they are otherwise uninterrupted during the workday can do wonders for the ASD person’s personal work ethic. If your employee is aware of their ASD, the best way to work with them is to ask what works. They often will show you the best type of environment for them to be successful, and this can be used as a baseline for success to create an ASD-friendly workspace.

Challenge 3: Being Hired at All

According to national data, the majority of persons with autism are unemployed or underutilized, with estimates ranging around or over 90%. This should not be the case. One of the biggest obstacles for people with ASD is finding an employer who is willing to give them a chance to work in the first place. Some companies are committed to hiring a diverse workforce, and that absolutely includes employees with ASD. Such organizations believe that people with ASD have the potential to be great employees, and are dedicated to providing the support they need to succeed. Organizations looking to meet diversity goals will find an easy win in the ASD individual. More than just meeting a standard, you will benefit from the phenomenal work ethic the autistic person brings when the right conditions are in place.

In stark contrast to the problem people with ASD have with getting hired, companies should be chomping at the bit to hire these individuals. With work ethics second to none, the same hyper-focus of someone with ADHD, and accommodation needs that can easily be met, you should do everything you can to hire ASD employees.

Methods to Support People With ASD  in the Workplace

Once you have hired people on the spectrum, it’s helpful to know how best to support them and set them up for success.

There is Comfort in Repetition

In some cases, repetitive tasks may be ideal for ASD employees, who tend to enjoy and find comfort in repetition itself. Some people find monotonous chores to be understimulating and even frustrating. However, those with ASD are often the exception and may find solace in mundane yet necessary tasks.

Make Essential Functions Your Focus

Each applicant should be evaluated as to how well they are able to fill a role’s essential functions and what accommodations they will need. In the case of ASD employees, ensure that they find the roles and responsibilities possible given their current environment, and if not, modify the environment so long as it doesn’t change the core function of the position. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we can modify almost anything and still be just as, if not more, productive.

Be Open and Reasonable when Accommodating for ASD

Considering the social and audio/visual issues someone with ASD deals with, accommodation must be reasonable within your organization. This might mean allowing the use of headphones (especially noise-canceling) when it comes to helping an ASD employee focus. Allowing for remote work when possible and keeping scheduling consistent give both the freedom and structure that the ASD individual will work best under.

How to Prevent Autism Discrimination in the Workplace

The majority of non-autistic individuals are unfamiliar with the intricate ways in which autistic people see the world and are not sufficiently prepared to deal with or collaborate with them. Autism is often a hidden handicap that has no outward physical indicators and encompasses a broad range of persons, behaviors, talents, and difficulties for many non-autistic people. Here is what we can do to avoid ASD discrimination in the workplace.

Promote a Focus on Ability, not Disability

Take a hard stance on focusing on the skills and abilities of all employees. Have a discussion with every employee about their abilities so they can tell you what’s possible. The interactive process, as it is known, is essential to any company’s defense against allegations of discrimination or failure to accommodate disability for any employee, including those with ASD.

Promote Awareness of ASD

In order to be an inclusive and supportive workplace for all employees, it is important to be aware of the challenges that come along with having ASD in the workplace and take active steps to address them. With a little knowledge and understanding, your workplace can be a welcoming environment for everyone.

Treat Every Employee Differently

Every employee has a unique personality and style of doing things. Flex to meet the personality and preference of every employee you hire. When the focus shifts from How do I work with person A to How can I help Person A be their best self, that is when the culture changes. Then every employee, ASD or not, can feel 100% accommodated.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Autism In The Workplace

Unless an employer has made all of the legally required, necessary accommodations for qualified disabled workers, he or she cannot fire a disabled employee for being disabled. The cause of termination must be non-discriminatory and well documented.
Yes. This will allow the employer to make necessary accommodations and for the employee to be free of the weight of not disclosing such a condition.
Steven Farber
Steven Farber

I spent much of my working life in a whirlwind of uncertainty wondering when I would find a career that would make me happy. After spending 23 years trying to find that ‘dream career’ I came to a sobering conclusion.

I realized that I wasn’t looking for a career, but for a purpose and that I would never be happy until I figured out what that purpose was. After a long hard road of trial and error, I concluded that my purpose, the very activity that brought me happiness was when I could bring that happiness to others first. Removing the vast amounts of uncertainty this life can bring for others and replacing it with true peace of mind, gave me my much sought-after peace of mind.

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