5 Tips to Support Autistic Colleagues in the Workplace
In honor of World Autism Awareness Day (April 2), I am excited to share what I learned from my recent interview with Melt Olckers, board member of Autism South Africa, about how to best support colleagues and coworkers who are autistic.
Autism / Autistic 101
The clinical description is “autism spectrum disorder,” but autism advocates and activists prefer reclaiming the word “autistic” as part of who they are rather than a disorder they have. For example, Melt would rather introduce himself as “I am Melt Olckers and I am autistic”, rather than saying “I have autism.”
With this clarification of terms out of the way, we dove into a conversation about one of the most common questions autistic people are asked: “When did you know you were autistic?”
Melt was only diagnosed as an adult, which is a more common experience than one would think. Children who show what is perceived as “less severe” signs of autism often go undiagnosed, as their struggles and behavioral impacts are not flagged by parents or other caregivers. But all aspects of autism affect the quality of life of autistic people, and diagnosis goes a long way to helping both the child and caregivers adapt to how autism affects their life.
Being diagnosed helped immensely, Melt explained: “Once you know the name of the beast, you are able to control the beast.” Knowledge is power, and that power changes lives. Armed with a diagnosis, autistic people come to understand that their brains are wired differently (they are neuro-atypical) and that this affects the way they view the world and interact with themselves and other people. This knowledge enables them to approach things differently, and to adapt to life in a way that improves the quality of their life, rather than trying to do things the way non-autistic (neurotypical) people do.
This knowledge manifested in various way and in different aspects of Melt’s life. We had a deeper discussion about how exactly that knowledge impacts the workplace, and how this awareness helps both autistic employees and their colleagues and, ultimately, the Human Resource (HR) department to ensure that autistic employees have the best possible work experience.
TIPS FOR EMPLOYERS AND HUMAN RESOURCES ON SUPPORTING AUTISTIC STAFF
Tip #1: Create Autism-Informed and -Friendly Hiring & Interview Processes
In preparing for my interview with Melt, I settled on questions that I thought were well-researched and believed that I was well-prepared, but I soon realized that I had a lot of misconceptions about autism, and specifically about autism in the workplace. A few of my questions were geared towards asking and prompting about issues around discrimination autistic people face in the workplace.
Once I started asking Melt questions, I soon realized how unprepared I was, as autism is often an invisible challenge in the workplace when compared to other diversity issues. One of the biggest challenges autistic people face is not workplace discrimination, but discrimination that leads to not being hired in the first place.
As Melt pointed it out, most interviews are set up (consciously or unconsciously) to test social skills. This happens either informally when the interview panel waits for everyone to join the meeting, and someone starts making small talk with the prospective employee, or formally when asking “ice breaker” questions. Small talk and ice-breakers are not something that all people are comfortable with or good at, and this is specifically true of many autistic people. Also, eye contact is not always something that comes naturally to autistic people, as it can be very uncomfortable for them – sometimes even physically. The same goes for showing emotions. All of these “behaviors” are often scored and weighed by the interviewers along with attributes like “friendliness”, “communication skills” and the “ability to connect”.
Unless the position is for a front-of house-hostess, or a salesperson, these skills do not really reflect on the person’s ability to perform in the position that they are being interviewed for. And yet interviewers place a lot of emphasis on these abilities when deciding on whether to hire a person or not. The emphasis and questions should, therefore, rather be about whether the person has the rights skills to meet the roles and responsibilities of the job description.
Also, while being a team player is often an important aspect of the interview process in deciding on a person’s ability to fit into the culture of the workplace, concepts such as “team” and what it means to be a team player need to be redefined based on inclusivity of diversity.
Tip #2: Create a Workspace that is More Inclusive of Every Employee
It is not the autistic person’s attitude towards work and team dynamics that needs to change, but the company’s approach to these things.
In general, what companies view as “teamwork,” “team building” or any office-related activities that require employees to be “team players” are things that a lot of autistic people struggle with. This has nothing to do with their ability to perform their work, or their attitude towards the team or company, but is simply their struggle with team dynamics and group exercises. The same goes for work-related social events, like the year-end party or any after-hours socialization. In reality, participation in these activities has nothing to do with how a person performs their tasks during office hours, but in practice, they are perceived as “unwilling” to participate or interact with colleagues, and therefore a “bad team player.”
There are a few tips that a person who is autistic can follow once they are in a situation that they feel might trigger emotions or behaviors that others won’t understand. But these tips can only be implemented if they are in a working environment that is aware of and sensitized to issues autistic people face in the workplace. It is crucial for HR to become more aware of how autism affects the working life of an autistic person. This awareness then needs to be followed up with HR educating themselves further and then sensitizing staff members by sharing what they have learned. It is only through these conversations that a workplace’s diversity policies can be broadened to include autistic people. This change is the only way to include autistic employees as team members, which will create a working environment that benefits the autistic employee, their colleagues, and the workplace.
Tip #3: Implement Flex-Time
During the recent pandemic, we all learned lessons about flexibility regarding when, where, and how work gets done. Extending some these lessons into permanent policies for all staff serves to directly benefit autistic and other staff members who are prone to sensory overload. Flex-time gives the option of coming into the office or starting remote work earlier or later than their colleagues, so that they can work without interruption and external stress.
Tip #4: Valuing Solo Work as Much as Teamwork Allows Autistic Staff to Self-Regulate Better
Melt also mentioned that it was extremely helpful, once his company knew that he was autistic and sometimes experienced panic attacks, that he was allowed to work on his own and not incorporate into team structures. He could more openly manage oncoming panic attacks or any triggering moments and de-escalate them in a productive way before it became disruptive to his ability to work. It is important for an autistic person to feel that they are in control during and after a triggering situation or moment. Autistic people have a lot of experience soothing themselves during extreme emotional stress and are, in most cases, best left alone to manage things like panic attacks. When they join the workplace, a conversation with an autistic colleague about how they prefer to manage triggers is essential, as this will give them a safe space to take control – either by themselves or by asking for help.
Tip #5: Trust Autistic Staff to Take Care of Themselves, and Support Their Needs to Do So
One of the specific challenges that autistic people face is being triggered by overwhelming stimuli (sensory overload), like noise, bright lights, and too many people, amongst others, which then leads to emotional and then physical reactions like panic attacks. These are things that happen to non-autistic people too, but autistic people are more prone to them. Things that might be helpful for the autistic person in these situations would be to close their office door, play calming music, or step outside of the office for a few moments, especially in open-plan offices. But these interventions that de-escalate difficult moments are, in many cases, only possible if colleagues are aware of things that could trigger their autistic colleague and how they can best help their colleague to cope. Colleagues also need to be aware that there need to be a few alternative coping strategies, as a strategy that works in one moment might not help the next time.
Melt Olcker’s Self-Advocacy Tips for Employees Who are Autistic
Share information with your immediate manager, or HR, and colleagues as there are a lot of misconceptions about what autism is. Melt names this the “Rain Man effect” – where most people’s knowledge about autism stretches as far as what they saw in the film “Rain Man.”
Know your body. Learn to know the signs of distress in advance so that you know when a panic attack or any other possible reaction is about to happen. Learn what works best for you to de-escalate the moment, as each person is calmed by different things, ranging from taking a walk outside, managing sensory input (noise-cancelling headphones or playing music through headphones/earphones), deep breathing, splashing cold water on the face and neck, etc.
Set boundaries within company policy limits: For example, if it is not mandatory to go to the office party on a Friday evening, kindly decline the invitation if you do not feel up to a social event.
Negotiate for a working environment that is safe and supportive: For example, flex-time, earlier hours, alternating working from home and in the office, organizing a single-occupant office with HR, etc.
Read up and learn about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and how to use those skills and information to your advantage.
You can learn more about autism and the specific challenges that autistic people face by reading information on the Autistic Advocacy Network website, as well as watching this great video.