Understanding and Supporting Employees on the Autism Spectrum
by Jane Goguen |
There is so much to say about autism, because it presents differently in everyone. While it would be nice to get into every little aspect, so that people on the spectrum can be better understood, that may not be a feasible task for this blog post. However, throughout this piece, you will find links and references to resources and organizations that go more into detail should you wish to explore further.
Starting with the basics, autism is a developmental disability that persists throughout one’s life and exists on a spectrum. Hence why people on the spectrum use the label “neurodivergent” for themselves (diverging from the typical way of brain functioning) and “neurotypicals” for those not on the spectrum. The spectrum aspect of this disability refers to the variability in levels of assistance needed by individuals for different things. Some individuals require assistance from speech-to-text programs at all times, others only sometimes, and others not at all. Some individuals present with comorbidities like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or sensory restrictions. There are many types of needs that present differently in everyone, and that require different levels of support. However, all levels of needs and supports are valid, hence why language like “low/high functioning” is avoided, because it is inaccurate and derogatory. A blog post by Romana Tate on the Autistic Women & Nonbinary (AWN) Network highlights why such language is arbitrary, and how it assumes people in one group have more worth or “fit better” in society.
There are some commonalities among neurodivergents that may even be shared by neurotypicals.
Autistic Burnout or Being Overwhelmed
You may have heard of the need for routine. For some individuals, routine is mandatory, or else they become overwhelmed and have a hard time processing change. This feeling of being overwhelmed may be or may not be visible (ASAN). Meaning, some people show it physically (through stimming, which will be explained soon, or through other methods) or don’t show it at all, and just shut down (they might become nonverbal). Becoming burnt out can also result from being overstimulated (AWN Network), which is detailed below.
To help your neurodivergent employees deal with burnout, ensure that they are receiving the proper support. They may need extra breaks, time to stim, the ability to remove themselves from excessive sensory input (like having a private cubicle or room), established routines/reminders, or help organizing their work (ASAN).
Stimming and Stimulation
Autistic individuals are more prone to being sensitive to loud sounds (even hard to hear sounds, like from electronics), bright lights (ASAN), or a busy environment (too many things happening at once). Note that under stimulation also occurs and happens when there aren’t enough sensory inputs (Stages Learning).
To cope with emotions, over or under stimulation, change, or other struggles, autistic individuals may also engage in something called stimming. You might have heard this term. Stimming includes the more well-known hand-flapping, the use of fidget toys, or rocking back and forth, but it also includes (and is not limited to):
A good way to support your autistic employees is to ask them about their specific needs. There is still stigma around stimming, especially methods that aren’t witnessed as often. Informing the workplace culture about what stimming is and why some individuals engage in it is a great way to normalize seeing these behaviours so that those who stim feel more comfortable. However, this may take some time, and some individuals may prefer privacy while stimming. Providing them with a private area to do so can be helpful, but asking the individual what accommodations they need is always best. See the stimming infographic for more.
Communication is also something that varies by individual, or even by day or hour. Some can communicate verbally while others use pictures, text, or text-to-speech programs (ASAN). Autistic individuals can become non-verbal, where it is physically impossible to speak, even if the individual wants to. It’s often described as a disconnect between one’s thoughts and mouth.
Nonverbal communication may also be a struggle. Eye contact is described by some as uncomfortable or even painful (Autistic Self Advocacy Network). For some, it’s not intuitive, and they have to focus so much on performing that they cannot pay attention to what is being said. Facial expressions may be hard to control or absent.
Some people use scripts to guide what they are going to say, or to predict how a conversation will go. Think of the greeting you exchange with your co-worker in the morning. It typically follows the following format:
- “Good morning, [name].”
- “Good morning, [name]. How are you?”
- “Good, the weather is so nice today!”
That’s typically the conclusion to such a meeting, so one can expect to go their own direction afterward. But if you were to stray from such a script, skipping all the pleasantries by introducing a heavy topic without warning or engaging in conversation for longer, the individual may be confused or unable to respond. If this interaction were to occur in a different, unexpected setting, like seeing you at the ball game, it may be hard for some individuals to respond, since they haven’t had time to prepare what they will say.
Social rules or norms, the non-physical part of communication, may not be understood (ASAN). Ambiguous speech and metaphors may be hard to understand. Examples of this are when you don’t directly assign someone a task, but just suggest it should be done by someone in the group. Or, a common culprit is “have it to me by (date).” Do you want it submitted the day before? Or can it also be submitted on that day? If so, how late in the day would be acceptable? These may seem innocuous, but can mean the difference between thorough or rushed work. Ambiguity can also lead to stress. Some individuals are proactive in asking for clarification, while others would rather operate in confusion instead of reaching out due to fear of coming off as annoying or incompetent. It may help, even if you are unable to identify every ambiguous statement, to remind them to reach out or directly ask if anything needs clarifying and following through.
Moreover, if you are looking to hire a self-identifying autistic individual or looking to make your hiring process more accessible, consider an assessment for position-related capabilities during the interview. This allows individuals (even non-neurodivergents) to showcase their skills and fit for the position, without being evaluated solely on the communication style.
A brief description of masking is when one changes their behaviours to be like that of a neurotypical person in order to “pass” (AWN Network). Often, scripts or behaviours are taken from past experiences, or even favourite shows. To some, it feels like putting on a fake persona, or acting, just so social interactions go smoothly, and you can fit in and participate—so you’re not labelled “weird” or “rude.” Masking takes a lot of effort and energy, and can be draining, requiring downtime alone afterwards. This is not to say that the individual doesn’t enjoy socializing, but it may not come automatically, especially if they didn’t grow up practicing it.
While it may just seem like semantics, the use of language around autism can be polarizing. Some individuals are okay with and prefer language like “person with autism,” but many prefer identity-first language like “autistic person.” Why? The former suggests that the diagnosis is detachable, removable, or somehow baggage-like. Identity-first language allows individuals to identify with being autistic; it’s a part of them and it always will be. It’s not something bad or something that needs to be “softened” through othering language. For many, learning they are autistic (through a formal or self-diagnosis) is validating, and is part of their identity because it impacts various parts of their lives in either positive or disabling ways. It depends on the person. Words have subtle nuances, and while “person with autism” or “autistic person” may not seem that different to those outside the community, it can mean a lot to those in the community. Words affect how you think of things and can have heavy histories. It’s also important to point out that language that suggests autism is baggage or a burden to an individual, such as the phrase “person suffering from autism,” is strongly advised against. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has a wonderful blog post by Lydia Brown that highlights the different sides to this debate and its significance. In another autistic blog, the author highlights a more personal view of the use of the language which is worth the read. Overall, when in doubt, just ask the individual what they prefer, if they have a preference at all!
- Autism isn’t as frequently identified in women because studies usually focus on its presentation in males. Women are typically diagnosed later in life, with many unaware that they are autistic. There’s also little explicit representation out there.
- The common assumption that “autistic individuals are non-empathetic.” is inaccurate. Like neurotypicals, people vary in their empathetic abilities. For some autistics, they are debilitatingly empathetic, but may struggle to discern how people feel if it’s only revealed through nonverbal behaviour. It may be because of these missed social cues and deficits in social communication that the community is blanketed as “non-empathetic” or blunt. It may also be harder for autistic individuals to comfort individuals in the expected manner (ASAN).
- Autism Speaks is not an autistic-advocacy network, and instead allocates very little (0.16%) of their budget to helping autistic people and their families. Instead, they spent their budget on paying their non-autistic CEO $1 Million in 2019, and allocate funding to fundraising or awareness that shows autism as something mysterious and frightening (ASAN). Not only do they have only one autistic person on their board of 30 directors, but they allocate funds to research that was referred to in the past as “the cure” for autism (the term has since been removed, but the research hasn’t changed) instead of listening to the community and doing research on quality of life. Read more about why autism Speaks is harmful in this great article by Lee Beaudrot.
- Here are some “good” autism organizations to support instead:
When onboarding or upon a disclosure of a diagnosis, ask what supports or accommodations the individual may need in the workplace. Some may not know in the moment and may only be able to speak to them later. Some may require intangible supports such as others being conscious of their differences in communication. As an employer, you may be made aware of their diagnosis at any point in the employee’s career with you, for any number of reasons. They may have just received a diagnosis, or just became comfortable in disclosing it because they assessed that the work culture would take it well, or they have job security, which a lot of the community struggles to find. There are many other (personal) reasons why an autistic person might choose to disclose, but it’s important as the employer that you follow through with the accommodations and keep an open channel for communication, otherwise it may come off as insincere. Know that needs may change, and a single blanket set of accommodations won’t work because of vast individual differences.
While I did conduct research (including an in-person interview with an autistic individual) to ensure accurate representation of the needs of the autistic community, this blog can in no way be fully representative of each person’s thoughts and needs. Hence, it’s important you ask the individual what accommodations they may need, if they are comfortable disclosing them.
CEI Youth Advisory Group Member, 2021-22
Jane Goguen is a student at St. Francis Xavier university completing an Honours degree in Marketing with Co-op education. Her interests lie in research and cybersecurity, pursuing a post-grad career that embraces aspects of these. She is also passionate about art, psychology, and working towards positive change.