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What are the biggest misconceptions about employing autistic people?

Friday 24 March 2017

Reading time: 5 minutes

Five ideas some employers have about autistic people in the workplace – and why they’re wrong.

Some employers assume that because a person is autistic they will also have some kind of learning disability. This is absolutely not true for the majority. Autistic adults display a range of intellectual abilities – as do the predominant neurotype (PNT) (non-autistic) population – from low IQ to members of Mensa.

Here are five more misconceptions about autistic people in the workplace – and why they're not true.

1. "It's more hassle than it's worth."

Employers are bound by law within the UK to provide 'reasonable adjustments' to their autistic employees who would otherwise be at a disadvantage. Some employers might think this is a hassle, but actually the adjustments are usually easy to implement and the resulting efficacy at work can be extraordinary.

Some employers say their autistic employees are the very best in the workforce. Attention to detail, precision, meeting deadlines, loyalty, dedication – these are all common characteristics of autistic workers.

2. "Autistic people are impaired in communication."

There are all sorts of misconceptions around this. I think it helps to understand communication in terms of language. In other words, there is autistic language, and PNT language.

Take an English speaking person and a French speaking person, both of whom have studied the other's language to GCSE level. They will both be at a disadvantage when forced to engage in the other's language – but you wouldn't say they were impaired in communication.

Similarly, if you can understand that the autistic employee might need to communicate in a (sometimes only slightly) different way – having instructions written down clearly, for example – then useful communication can increase dramatically. Sometimes, simple things such as cutting out social chit-chat at work can make all the difference. In fact, it’s often the ambiguity of the PNT language that is actually the problem, rather than any ‘impairment' within the autistic employee!

Two colleagues talking in an office

3. "What you see is what you get."

Some employers find that their understanding of their autistic employee turns out to be vastly different to the lived reality of that person.

For example, an employee might not appear to be engaging with their line manager in a one-to-one meeting, but actually she is absorbing every word. (Often the signs people use to ascertain ‘engagement' are ones that autistic people have issues with, such as making and maintaining eye contact.)

Or the employee who is seemingly happy and content at work but whose reality is that they are highly anxious, but does not want to cause any fuss.

Or the person who appears to be deliberately rude – when in fact he is just trying to make sure his boss is being accurate in her language, so likes to correct her when he can.

Being autistic means that one has a different way of processing information – including communication, the social domain, other people, the sensory environment – so if an autistic person is 'judged' through a PNT understanding it is entirely likely that misunderstandings will take place.

The concept of understanding the employee 'through the autism lens' is a hugely useful one, and reduces the chances of making incorrect assumptions.

4. "You can tell something about a person because they're autistic."

Far more people are aware of autism now than twenty years ago. But that doesn’t mean their understanding of autistic people and their needs is anywhere near as good as it could be.

In fact, this increased awareness can sometimes lead people to have preconceptions about an autistic person’s characteristics.

The reality is that every autistic person is unique in their own right. And, while there are 'autistic characteristics' that are more common than others, there is no guarantee that any characteristic can be attributed to any one autistic person.

It's really down to the employer to find out the individual characteristics, strengths, weaknesses of their employees – in the same way I hope they would do for all employees.

A man in an office

5. "Autistic employees are a fussy bunch."

One area of employment that is often overlooked is the sensory environment in which an autistic employee is expected to work. Autistic individuals will have a different 'sensory profile' compared to the majority of their PNT peer group. This means they process and react to the sensory environment in extremely different ways.

This can sometimes manifest itself in an employee appearing to be very stressed over something that others might not even notice, which can come across as simply fussy. Again, though, it's a case of recognising the need to see things 'through the autism lens' – from the autistic perspective, not the PNT.

If the autistic person can hear the ticking of the clock to the point of distraction, they are not being fussy, they are being hypersensitive to noise. For some, this isn't even about preference – it might even be painful to them to process that sound.

There are plenty of other examples that could be solved relatively easily without a huge amount of effort – and the impact on the autistic employee can be enormous.

Working in an environment that causes sensory overload can be impossible. So next time an employee requests a transfer out of the open-plan office, or away from the phone ringing, or to have ear defenders, or dimmer lighting, or as far away from the canteen as possible, take it seriously. It's not fussiness, it's a necessity.

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