Autism in the Workplace

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is a requirement for employers to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities and to provide support where appropriate. Of course, disability does not need to be physical and we should be mindful that our colleagues may have ‘hidden’ disabilities.

The start of April marked World Autism Awareness Week. While it is encouraging that people are becoming more aware of autism, it is important – particularly for employers – to understand exactly what it involves and the impact it has on people’s lives.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD or ‘autism’ for short) is a developmental condition that affects approximately 700,000 people in the UK - that’s roughly 1 in 100. The characteristics of autism often vary from one person to another, although it typically affects social communication, interaction and behaviour. Autism can also cohabit with learning disabilities or mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Autism is a lifelong condition. It does not ‘go away’ over time, nor is it a disease that can be cured. Because of this, there is an increasing need to provide support for adults with autism to find employment in the UK. Only 16% of autistic adults are in full time employment, whilst 32% are in some form of paid work.

Most of the issues with autism revolves around integrating an autistic person into a ‘neurotypical’ setting i.e. a setting inhabited primarily by people who are not on the autism spectrum, such as a typical workplace. However it does not need to be a challenge.

An employee with autism may struggle with informal instructions - something like “run upstairs and get some paper, will you?” could be taken quite literally, for instance. However, they may excel at other skills, and in some cases possess a high attention to detail, making them valuable assets to the workplace.

As autism affects people differently, the amount of support required will depend on the individual, their job role and the organisation they work for. It can be beneficial for employees to be trained in understanding autism, ensuring that colleagues with autism will not be misunderstood e.g. in that they are not being intentionally rude or inappropriate. Even an open discussion about autism with employees can foster acceptance in the workplace. Taking the time to ask, listen, and be open to learning more about the subject are positive first steps for employers and employees alike.

It is time to shift from awareness of autism to genuine acceptance as part of society.

For users of the Aviva Development Zone, we are currently developing a course on ‘Autism in the Workplace’ detailing how to manage and make adjustments for employees with autism.

About the author

Jessica joined RWA in 2018, having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Film Studies. Prior to this, she worked in a photography studio as a wedding album editor and also attended work experience at a local library.

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