By Stacey Renouf, EPIC Assist Mental Health Consultant
Work is good for mental health. Meaningful work expands our sense of self-worth and independence while adding skills that help us accomplish goals. Meaningful work, which can include employment, study or volunteer work, also fosters social interaction which is vital to good mental health.
Despite these benefits, entering the workforce can be a stressful time in someone’s life. Change comes with uncertainty, and many of us feel vulnerable as we navigate the ins and outs of a new workplace. This can be particularly true for people on the autism spectrum, who may require extra support as they enter a new job.
Did you know that approximately 20% of our caseload is made up of people on the autism spectrum? This is understandable, considering that approximately one out of every 65 people in Australia is on the autism spectrum. It’s important to remember that the autism spectrum is just that- a spectrum- and support needs will vary between individuals.
How can I support a person on the autism spectrum?
Exercising empathy, understanding and patience are critical to supporting a person on the autism spectrum as they commence a new role. By taking the time to understand a person’s needs, you are helping build a safe and supportive work environment. That can make a significant difference in a person’s positive mental health.
While no two people on the autism spectrum are the same, many people share common characteristics. This can help us improve our knowledge and understanding, which will shape the ways in which we interact with people on the spectrum. Shared traits include:
- Difficulty understanding and interpreting non-verbal/emotional cues, and a tendency to take statements literally.
- Sensitivity to sensory inputs such as loud noises, bright lights and crowds.
- Challenges in dealing with changes to routine or unexpected occurrences.
New research indicates that the ‘fear centre’ of the brain in people with autism can be more active. This controls out ‘fight or flight’ response and can be a trigger for increased anxiety in uncomfortable situations.
The fact that people on the autism spectrum are more vulnerable to mental health challenges doesn’t need to interfere with their ability to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. Like anyone experiencing mental health issues, having a strong support network (both at home and work) is essential.
We all have a role to play in creating a culture of support around mental health in the workplace, which will not only benefit people on the autism spectrum but all employees.