What do autistic employees need to be successful in the workplace?
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, just 40% of people with autism in Australia are employed. So how do we change this statistic? In May 2019, I hosted the Neurodiversity & Employment Symposium in Brisbane to hear from the experts on this topic.
The symposium featured keynote speakers such as Dr Michelle Gartnett and Professor Tony Attwood, psychologists at the Minds & Hearts practice in Brisbane who are well renowned in Brisbane.
We also heard from:
- Bill Gamack, the CEO of Epic Assist International, a disability employment agency;
- Vicky Little, the Quality Assurance Manager at Specialisterne Australia; and
- Yenn Purkis, a non-binary autistic author working in the public service.
Here were the major themes that were discussed during the symposium.
Changing Employer Expectations on Autism
Bill Gamack, the CEO of Epic Assist International, believes that the message about neurodiversity is reaching the mainstream of society. He cites TV programs such as Employable Me, which have profiled the personal stories of autistic people looking for employment.
“It’s not about the charity or an employer feeling good or about doing right. It’s the power that comes with a diverse workforce,” he says.
“This is the other part of the diversity conversation. There are competitive advantages as part of it.”
Mr Gamack also points to the chief reason for employer hesitation: fear.
“You need to overcome something basic: people are scared. The employer has more of an issue rather than the person with a disability,” he said.
“Employers want everyone to be normal and come in and do a perfect job. They want a safe hire. Easy. Everyone needs to fit into a box and conform.”
Vicky Little, the Quality Assurance Manager at Specialisterne Australia, noted that the majority of employment programs are focused on IT-related skills, because “it’s a safe landing place for employers to start [looking into neurodiversity]”.
“They’re nervous about doing something new. They are nervous about disrupting the recruitment process. They’re nervous about taking on an initiative like this unless they see that it’s been done elsewhere before.”
The strongest indicator of success is “an understanding manager” who takes the time to understand an autistic employee. It is about supporting their strengths and needs, as well as ensuring they are part of an environment.
“When you think about it, should it not be good management practice anyway?” she said.
In one case study focussing on Westpac, Ms Little mentioned a hiring manager who expressed discomfort about the prospect of hiring an autistic employee. However, by the end of the internship program, he said hiring that employee was one of the best decisions in his career.
Ms Little hopes that in the not-so-distant future, employers will be keen to promote themselves as “autism-friendly workplaces”.
Women with Autism Are Being Overlooked
Dr Michelle Gartnett, who has treated many people with autism, says that autism in girls and women remains underdiagnosed.
On average, girls were being diagnosed on average at the age of 12-13 years old. But anecdotally, many would consider themselves lucky to receive an autism diagnosis before adulthood.
“There is a whole generation who have been missed. [They] don’t realise it till their 40s and 50s,” said Dr Gartnett.
“Women in the workplace can be disbelieved because it doesn’t match the autism stereotype.”
Instead, women are often wearing a mask. In the workplace, they may be perceived as complaining, malingering or difficult to get along. Consequently, many women feel their concerns and worries are dismissed because they don’t fit the usual cultural stereotype of autism.
Yenn Purkis, a non-binary autistic working in the public service in Canberra, can identify with those challenges.
Yenn’s chief concerns as an autistic worker include anxiety around job security, misinterpreting other people’s words or fearing the worst based on the actions of others around her.
However, Yenn credits the current managers at the workplace for accommodating challenges as best as they can with an inclusive approach.
Top Strengths That Autistic People Can Bring to the Workplace
Yenn named the following strengths in the workplace:
- Positive attitude
- Attention to detail
- Sense of gratitude
- Different approach
- Understanding of diversity
- Honesty and Integrity
- Small amounts of unplanned leave.
Yenn says they ask their managers to clarify the work and seek reassurance to make sure they are on the right track. Coming to terms with how work perceptions could be different to others has also helped Yenn.
Employing Autistic People can Be Great For Business
According to Yenn, employing autistic staff:
- Improves team diversity;
- Enhances problem-solving within business;
- Encourages innovative thinking styles;
- Promotes the company as an “employer of choice”
- fosters engaged, focused and proficient workers; and
- Educates other employees about the value of diversity.
Top Sensory Accommodations for Employers
Sensory accommodations are one of the easiest types of accommodations for employers to implement in the workplace.
Sensory accommodations can be divided into sound, aroma or tactile.
Sound: a quiet workplace or noise-cancelling handsets can go a long way to minimise distress associated with high noise levels.
Tactile: provide gloves or dark glasses
Aroma: ensure the environment is free of any potentially distressing aromas such as strong cleaning products and perfumes. If possible, provide alternative scents (such as peppermint oil).
Communication Tips for Employers to Staff with ASD
According to Professor Attwood, employing someone with ASD is to embark on a cultural exchange program. AS to understand NT. NT to understand AS.
- Be reliable, clear, sympathetic and encouraging;
- Allow time;
- Use concrete terms;
- Be straightforward (I am busy now)
- Check with the employee if there is an issue.
- Offer individualised flexible range of strategies and keep notes of advice given. Consistent messaging is a must.
- Provide employee with a mentor for unwritten social code as well as work clarification/support.
- Increase team knowledge of the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome
- Educate on how to adjust communication style to ASD.
The Key Message:
Positive feedback, guidance, encouragement and ongoing support is also crucial for the future success of the employee.
Common Communication Style Adjustments for Employers
- Lack of eye contact helps with processing information. Understand that they are still listening and do not take things personally.
- Pointing out errors and being critical is a way of being honest and being helpful. Don’t be offended and thank them.
- If they are taking a while to reply to a question, it’s because they process spoken and social language slowly. Being patient and allowing for time is key.
- If they talk for a long time in great detail, they take great pride in knowledge, value and getting it right. You can thank them for the details and ask them for a short version.
- If they feel sensitive to criticism about their intellect, as they value intellect. You should apologise and complement their intellect.
If the Autistic Employee is Anxious:
- Ask them one-on-one about what is distressing them
- Sensitively look into their triggers
- Use above list of triggers to guide discussions
- Progressive muscle relaxation and meditation
- Using sports technology to measure people.
As Professor Tony Attwood sums it up:
“We need an understanding that autism is a brilliant brain. It’s not all about eyeballing each other,”
Psychologist & Director