Clear communication breaks down barriers to employment for people with autism

Friday, 23 March 2018

The UK’s Business Disability Forum released their latest research “Square Holes for Square Pegs: Current Practice in Employment and Autism.

The research surveyed the responses of their 300 member organisations, including a variety of industry sectors; autism and employment specialists; and people on the autism spectrum.

Key findings showed that all parties agreed that communication was a key factor in people with autism retaining employment.

In order to secure a competitive advantage through access to this highly skilled sector of the workforce, and improving the productivity of current staff; there are a few simple adjustments which can be made at every level of the employment process.


Recruitment companies

Make sure the recruitment company you use has a diverse talent pool to choose from. Be clear that you want a diverse workforce, to increase organisational productivity and innovation.

Application process

Adjust the language in your application process. Be clear and concise about what you need; avoid unnecessarily ambiguous or abstract terms such as: “a good communicator.”

Abstract descriptions can be difficult to interpret, especially for a person on the autism spectrum. Provide concrete instructions on the criteria to be met and how to apply.

Put less weight on qualifications, and more consideration into aptitude and achievements.

When notifying applicants who have been shortlisted for interview, request information on any adjustments they may require.

A person who is on the autism spectrum may require more time to process a question before answering. By providing them with the opportunity to request this extra time, without having to disclose their neurodiversity you are less likely to get impatient and fill the gap with more questions.

Zach Zaborny, EPIC Assist Recruitment Consultant and International Speaker on Autism pointed out the importance of establishing a workplace culture of direct and open communication early on.

“I think it’s important to communicate early and often on the job if you are someone with ASD. Even if you aren’t sure how to communicate properly at first, just being able to be in a supportive workplace with open communication, is the first step to a great employee/employer relationship,” he said.

Another option for an interview is to recruit an autism specialist to provide support as a translator. A person on the autism spectrum is likely to be very literal, whereas employers often use metaphors, abstract statements and open questions.

A specialist will translate open statements and questions into more concrete, literal sentences which are more easily understood.

Work Trials/Internships

These can work with, or instead of, an interview process. Provide candidates with a set task and deadline to give them the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and attributes.

It is very important to be clear about your expectations.

Inferred meanings and internal politics are not always clear to a candidate entering a new work environment.

Refrain from hot-desking whenever possible, as it can be detrimental to productivity. Without a consistent workplace, the candidate may become distracted or uncomfortable because their surroundings change every time they come to work.

Judge candidates by task outcomes, not by your first impression of their interpersonal skills, which can be developed over time.

Build your competitive advantage

People who are on the autism spectrum often have a keen interest in a particular area, which means they are highly knowledgeable and highly skilled in their area of interest.

Do not miss out on hiring, and retaining the most talented candidate because they may not be able to look you in the eye, or shake your hand when they first meet you.

“I know that personally for me, of the many jobs that I have had, in the jobs with more direct communication with my employer, I’ve had more success. In jobs where there has been bad communication surrounding my employment, my jobs have really suffered,” Zach said.

Improved Line Management

Line managers with a diverse team of employees learn new skills, which help them become more flexible.

Staff feel more comfortable and are more productive when their manager understands their needs and makes adjustments accordingly.

Zach states that communication is key to maintain a good working relationship between employers and employees.

“I think that communication in the workplace, between both employers and employees, when it comes to people on the autism spectrum, is essential for success. As someone who is on the autism spectrum myself, having Asperger’s Syndrome, I can say first hand, that communication is the most important key to a great work environment,” Zach said.

Be honest and direct in your instructions to employees, don’t make assumptions.

Provide support when a staff member is beginning to look stressed.

Be non-judgemental. Understand that for some people, sensory stimulation (e.g. fiddling with a rubber band) helps them to relax, it does not detract focus from their work.

Also understand that for people on the autism spectrum, sensory stimulation you have not considered could be a problem. For example, fluorescent office lights can be distracting, they may need to wear a hat or sunglasses to reduce their impact.

When taking a person who is neurodiverse on board, let the other staff members in their team know a little about their needs. This can be done subtly if you do not have permission to disclose their neurodiversity.

For example (taken from “Square Holes for Square Pegs” page 10):

“… The colleague could be told that for the first few days the new employee is not going to talk to them, as they are shy and that they should give them a bit of time and space. They could then be told that after a few days it is okay to start talking to them. This will mean everyone can start off on the right foot.”

When employees are confident they know and understand what is expected of them; they are more engaged with their tasks; there is greater job satisfaction; and productivity increases.

Diversity drives innovation and productivity

Diversity is a hot topic, but it’s not just about gender. A diverse workforce provides a variety of perspectives to tasks and challenges they face, which leads to a more solution focused, and innovative team.

Zach highlighted the important role communication plays in the future of employment for people on the autism spectrum.

“As more companies are hiring people on the autism spectrum, worldwide, continuing effective and open communication will make for a bright future for people on the autism spectrum in terms of employment.”