Autism spectrum disorder (ASD for short) is a complex developmental condition that affects 1 in 150 Australians. And as a developmental condition, autism cannot be “cured,” meaning that those with ASD can face several challenges in day-to-day life:
- Social skills
- Repetitive behaviours
- Changes to routine
- Non-verbal communication
- Processing stimuli
That being said, we’re fortunate to live in a time when people are becoming more aware of autism and the numerous ways it manifests in individuals. People are starting to realise that while it cannot be cured, an autism diagnosis can be managed effectively, allowing individuals on the spectrum to lead fulfilling lives and careers.
People living with autism can be valuable additions to the workplace, bringing a unique perspective to your team. Despite that, 31.6% of people living with ASD are unemployed or underemployed.
Thankfully, our greater understanding of ASD means that we also now know what can be done to support individuals living with autism, and how you can help them thrive in a neurotypical workplace.
And better yet, a lot of these are things that can be easily implemented at small businesses and start-ups too!
So, where can you start?
How to support team members who live with autism
1) Reduce workplace stimuli
Sensory issues often accompany autism. Many people on the spectrum are sensitive to noises, smells, textures, lights and more, ranging in intensity from merely distracting, to uncomfortable or overwhelming.
The best way to support someone with autism-related hypersensitivity is to find ways to reduce workplace stimuli. Depending on what stimuli they struggle with, that can mean things like:
- Avoiding strong air fresheners or cleaning products
- Giving them headphones or earplugs to block out noises
- Allowing them to wear sunglasses or a visor to filter out light
Of course, hypersensitivity isn’t the only thing you need to worry about. Some people living with autism may also demonstrate the complete opposite. Whatever it is, it’s important to discuss whether stimuli will cause an issue and come up with a way to support them.
2) Clear communication is key
One of the most familiar challenges that come with living with autism is communication. In particular, many people who live with ASD experience challenges in three areas:
- Non-verbal communication – people with ASD often face challenges understanding facial cues, voice tones and other non-verbal cues
- Speech – challenges with forming sentences, using language and carrying out conversations are commonly associated with autism
- Language – people who live with autism tend to be literal, which can pose challenges when it comes to idioms and metaphors
A culture of clear communication can be a tremendous help if your team has members on the autism spectrum. Try to provide alternate communication methods when they might find something too difficult to communicate through speech. You might also encourage the rest of your team to provide clear directions, and to avoid using metaphors, figures of speech, and idioms when possible.
3) Do your homework
Working alongside someone on the autism spectrum for the first time can be a bit of an adjustment, especially if you do not have any prior experience. One of the biggest challenges is the changes to communication you need to make. Often, a poor understanding of autistic communication styles can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.
Luckily, this one is easy to accommodate if you know what to expect!
While the exact challenges depend on the individual, some common ones are:
- Difficulty with eye contact (don’t worry, they are still listening!)
- Bluntness – this is them trying to be helpful, not rude
- Taking their time to processing a question and forming a response (be patient if they do not reply immediately)
These are just some of the ways you might have to change the way you operate and communicate. Yes, it is a bit of an adjustment but take our word for it, it will make things easier for both of you going forward!
4) Get the rest of your team on board
While society is starting to understand more about autism, there are still many people who still feel uncomfortable working with someone on the spectrum. Maybe they do not know how ASD works, how to interact properly, or worry they might cause offence.
Whatever it is, the result is the same: many people living with autism can feel uncomfortable in the workplace.
Education is a key step towards bridging this divide. This means educating your team and ensuring they know what autism is, their colleague’s unique challenges, and how they can accommodate.
5) Touch base with a specialist
Many people who live with ASD will work with a professional to help them function in a neurotypical world. For example, occupational therapy for autism provides training, assistive aids, and technology that make it easier to function independently.
It can be an immense help to contact these professionals for advice. As experts in their fields, they can offer advice about how your small business can support an employee living with autism.
Most importantly however, as your employee’s caseworker, they also understand how your employee’s autism manifests and exactly what you need to do to build an environment where they can thrive.
6) Communicate changes in routine far in advance
Life as a small business owner can be unpredictable. You do not know when there may be an unexpected order, or when the computer system will crash.
For all the changes that can be predicted, it is important that you make efforts to communicate them in advance.
That’s because routine is important to people on the autism spectrum. In many cases, unexpected changes can cause greater anxiety than in neurotypical individuals. Communicating changes in advance and making accommodations early on, however, can minimise this effect.
Just remember that not all changes are equal, and that not all people living with ASD will react the same way. Be sure to talk to your autistic team members in advance to get a feeling of how they deal with changes to routine, and what sorts of changes cause them distress.
7) Be patient
Really, there isn’t much else that needs to be said!
Understanding autism: each case is unique
Have you ever wondered why we refer to “the spectrum” when talking about autism? The answer is simple: it is because autism refers to a broad range of conditions which manifest differently in each individual.
While these tips can make your small business more accessible to an individual living with ASD, at the end of the day, each case is unique. Some may experience certain symptoms more than others, and some individuals might not experience certain challenges at all.
It might take some adjustment, especially when most workplaces are built for neurotypical people. However, it does not mean it is impossible. It just requires a little bit of effort and understanding.
If your team is thriving, your small business will thrive. It’s as simple as that!
“The opinions expressed by BizWitty Contributors are their own, not those of BizCover and should not be relied upon in place of appropriate professional advice. Please read our full disclaimer."