The first day of a new job, being the newbie, is exciting – and nerve-wracking. So much to learn, so many faces and names to remember. And that’s before you get to your new desk and learn all about your new role. Or where the loo is.
For an autistic person, though, the excitement of a new job may well be tempered with anxiety about a new environment and its unwritten rules, and of maintaining a ‘public face’ to act like a ‘normal’ person. Which is stressful and exhausting for eight hours a day.
There are, however, some things which you, as a team leader or employer, can do to help someone with autism engage fully with your team. But you don’t have to wait until you have a declared autistic team member before you implement anything. You never know, you may already work with someone on the autistic spectrum; they may not have a diagnosis.
If you have a team member you know is autistic, the best way you can help them is by discussing with them what they need to do the job with the minimum of external stressors. Fewer stressors means a happier worker, which in turn leads to greater productivity. In the right environment, autistic people have excellent focus and attention to detail.
What do we mean by ‘stressors’? Well, the things which cause distress or sensory overload and impair the ability to cope with day-to-day life. In the case of autistic people, these are often either communicative or sensory. Unexpected changes to routine can also cause distress.
For an autistic person, starting a new job can be stressful due to not knowing what to do or who to talk to. Neither of these is always obvious, even for a neurotypical person, but for someone with autism, the ‘not knowing’ can be distressing. Having a clear, if flexible, timetable for the initial few days can help an autistic person to settle, as they are then aware of what’s happening and when. Having a buddy system also helps, as then there is a consistent person to talk to about any issues or queries.
Verbal information can be difficult for autistic people to process, sometimes because of the immediacy of such communications. Similarly, they can have trouble understanding the unwritten rules of social interactions. Don’t be surprised if they seem quiet at the beginning. They’re just processing their new environment.
When it comes to training, make sure that there are clear written instructions, both print and electronic, for any tasks and unwritten rules of the office. It’s also important that your expectations of the job or individual task are clear. Remember that some autistic people may take you literally, so avoid ambiguous language. A good rule of thumb for procedures is that someone walking in off the street should be able to follow them without trouble.
Autistic people often have sensory sensitivity, which means that aspects of their surroundings – for example, the light or noise levels – stress them, making it difficult for them to concentrate. It might be that being able to use headphones (with or without music playing) or changing the type of light (from blue to orange, perhaps) reduces this stress. Some may require a quiet space to themselves, or just somewhere quiet for their breaks to ‘recharge’.
One thing to remember about autism and autistic people: no two autistic people are the same, and autism presents differently in men and women. What works for one autistic person may not work for another.
Further information and guidance is provided by the National Autistic Society’s Employment Training and Consultancy Team. Alternatively, you can talk to us here at Connect, where we are specialists in SEND and accessibility training.